g. h. mabrey

"My name is Vera Simmons and I'm a co-dependent."

The woman speaks in a whisper so that no one will hear her. She is standing hunched over as if she would like to disappear into herself. She has graying brown hair and nondescript eyes behind thick plastic glasses, $25.99 at Wal-Mart. She has dark circles beneath her eyes; her skin looks sallow and ill-kept. She wears a clean but tattered sweater, the moss green does not suit her, it is a hand-me-down from her mother. Her shoes are large and orthopedic; she needs them for the errands she runs from morning to night. She is thirty-two but looks at least thirty-six. She has never said "no" a day in her life. She is not a woman that I like.

"My name is Vera Simmons and I'm a co-dependent," she says louder. I recognize her voice. It is my voice. My reflection in the mirror mocks me, the eyes behind the heavy prescription showing their disappointment. It is ten to ten on another dark and rainy Wednesday and I will be missing yet another meeting of CODA - Co-dependents Anonymous.

"Verity! You pick up this phone this instant!" my mother's harsh voice calls from the answering machine. She is the only one who calls me by my full name. "I know you're home. You hear me? I'm a very busy woman, I haven't got time for your nonsense."

I know that she will keep screaming until the machine cuts her off and then call again, so I pick up the receiver.

"Verity? Is that you?" Who else would it be? Only the two of us live here. "I know it's you," she continues. "I can hear your breathing. Listen, I have a parent conference at lunch. That Bobby Dean broke a cafeteria window. He threw a chair through it first thing this morning. What a day!" She sighs heavily, the weight of a principal's duties heavy on her shoulders.

"I'll pick up a sandwich and eat on the run. So you go to the Main Street Cleaners and get my gray suit. I want to wear it tomorrow. Make sure they got the stain out. If it still shows, you tell them to do it again and throw in a free cleaning to boot. They did a bad job on my wool trousers. Tell them I wasn't pleased. Say, 'Mrs. Morgan was not happy.' And be a good girl and have dinner ready for Mommy, will you?"

"Are you going to be late?" I ask while hastily scribbling directions.

"I think so," she says. "There's so much paperwork. If I'd known that an educator did nothing but... but never mind, too late now, I suppose."

"Anything but fish, dear," she continues. "I've had enough fish for awhile after your dinner last Sunday. That salmon was going bad. I told you never to get fish from the supermarket. You've got to go down to the harbor."

"It was from the dock," I say, but she doesn't hear me.

"See you later."

"Mama," I begin. "I was wondering..." but she's hung up.

I head out the door but I'm not quick enough. My cousin Sissy, who's a young thirty-three, squeals up our driveway in her red sports car.

"Vera," she yells over the motor. "I'm so glad I caught you. Oh my gosh, I'm so strapped for cash, you will not believe - and no pay 'til Friday. Be a dear and lend me a couple hun' will you? I'll be forever grateful, I promise."

She looks at me hungrily while I take out my wallet and count the bills. "I only have $85 and I have to buy st..."

Sissy puckers up her vermilion lips. "Don't you have more in the house? I can wait while you go check."

I shake my head.

"Well, I guess that'll have to do," she sighs.

I do a quick calculation as I hand over the money. "That'll be $1011.00 you owe me."

"Well!" she exclaims. "I didn't know you were keeping such a close record. If I'd known this was a bank and not my very own family..."

"Just kidding," I quickly add and the smile returns to her face.

"I've got to run. I finally got an appointment with Enrique, y'know, the one Julia Roberts goes to? I hear he's a genius; I can't wait. You know how it is. Bye."

I add going to the ATM to my list of chores.

I think about my cousin Sissy as I pull out of the driveway. She is married to a contractor and seems to spend her days making herself pretty. Mama always says I was the prettier baby but Sissy's made more of what she has.

I was married once too. Damon was nice to me, most of the time. But one day, he crossed the line when my mother showed up unannounced on Christmas Day. He'd been up drinking all night with his buddies. He hated my mother at the best of times, and Christmas Day with a hangover was the worst of times. He dragged me into the bedroom and accused me of inviting my mother behind his back when I knew he hated her. He demanded that I tell her to go home, but I could hear her banging away in the kitchen. She had already taken over the preparations.

Mama walked in just as Damon slapped me across the face for crying. He hated it when I got weepy; I should have been stronger.

Mama took one look, and grabbing me by the wrist, threw some of my stuff, helter skelter, into a large box, yelling all the while about how she had warned me not to marry that boy. An instantly contrite Damon had wept and pleaded, but all Mama said was, "You'll be hearing from my lawyer. A Mr. Brown. He's a good one." Then she bundled me into the car and took me home.

That was ten years ago. I have lived with Mama since. I few years back, Sissy told me she had run into Damon. He was a recovering alcoholic and remarried with two kids. My therapist knows the whole story. She tells me that I am a co-dependent in denial. I had to look that term up. The experts seem to disagree about what it means, but it confirms what I've suspected all along - there is something wrong with me. My therapist says that I am a classic case. The only child of a weak, alcoholic father and a domineering, care-taking mother, I married young to another alcoholic whom I supported with my work at an Alzheimer's unit while he lost one job after another.

My therapist suggested that I go to this CODA group. I am terrified of standing in front of people and identifying myself with a word which I barely understand. I am afraid of large groups of people, anyway. It is one of my many phobias. I am also afraid of water, heights, dogs, cats and spiders and enclosed spaces.

Of course, I am afraid of nothing so much as being alone. I cannot breathe when I think of the day when Mama will die and leave me. I am afraid that one day, I will be a nameless woman whom no one cares about and no one remembers, including me. Papa died with Alzheimer's, although my mother says it was the bottle that killed him.

But I also realize that these days I am also afraid of my reflection in the mirror, of the disappointed eyes that stare back at me.

Late that night, as Mama and I are eating Beef Stroganoff, overcooked from being on the back burner for so long, I hesitantly tell her that a friend of mine from high school is moving out of her rent-controlled unit and has offered me first choice. She says it's on the river, in a secure building, with a multitude of amenities on-site.

Mama puts her fork down.

"What do you think about the apartment, Mama?" I ask. "I think it would look pretty with some of my old things and the best part is, City College is only a few blocks away. I can take courses, maybe get that Librarian's degree..."

"Nonsense," my mother interrupts. "A bachelor's degree is good enough. What's the point of another two years of Graduate School just to work in a library? You should work in the public school system like me. Make good use of that biology degree you have."

"Besides," she continues, "you're welcome to stay here as long as you want. A CNA doesn't make much money; you're not in a position to squander it. You...." The look in my eyes stops her mid-sentence. She picks up her fork again and balances it over her plate. "But of course I won't stand in your way if you want to leave. It must be a burden for you living with a responsibility like me although, Lord knows, I try to help. Still, I'm an old lady. I can't stop you, but I think it would be a big mistake. The city's very dangerous these days and a single woman all alone... well, I wouldn't do it."

She stands up to place her plate in the sink. "I'll do it, Mama," I say about the dishes. "I wasn't seriously considering it. It's just that Abby suggested it and I thought... but I won't go if you don't want me to." Is that really true? mocks an inner voice.

"Its not what I want that counts, dear. Do what you want. I wash my hands of it. A woman gives birth in hard labor and slaves away to raise a child and then children go away as soon as they're able. I know the way of the world.

"I think I'll go lie down," she says. "I've had a hard day and I'm not feeling so well."

After the dishes are done and put away, I sit on my father's old lazy-boy to read a new Ha Jin book I've brought that day as a treat, but the words blur in front of me. My body aches all over and I think of a hot bath but am too weary to get up and run the water. Besides, it might wake my mother up. I hear snoring in her room.

Lately, I have been thinking of the bottles hidden around the house. My father hid them, before he passed away, and it was my job to root them out and dispose of the contents. I knew all his hiding places and I know there must still be some in the nooks and crannies that have not been searched since the night he left his bacon frying too long and set fire to the kitchen. It would be easy for me to find one and drink it. It would be a very easy thing to do.

Instead, I pick up the phone and dial Abby. "Is the apartment still available?" I ask. "It is? I'm really tempted, but ... Yes, I think it would be good for me. I'll let you know in a few days. Thanks, Abby."

That call made, I practice in front of the mirror. "My name is Verity Anne Simmons and I let people walk all over me. I have non-functioning boundaries and do too much for everyone else - things they can do themselves. I am a doormat and I no longer want to be a doormat." This is how I will introduce myself at the meeting next Wednesday.

The apartment might be a good move, the only move of any sort I've made in years, I think, as I slowly get undressed and slip under the covers. That night, I fall asleep listening to Louis Armstrong's "It's a Wonderful World." I decide to make the lyrics, "red roses too, I see them bloom for me and you," a promise.

© g. h. mabrey

Born in South Korea, g. h. mabrey immigrated to the U. S. with her family at the age of four and has lived in at least half the United States. She's written since the age of five when her first story was about a traveling backpack. She has recently completed a mystery entitled Death by Jove, and is at work on a fictionalized memoir of growing up as an Asian-American in the political and racial climate of the 'eighties. Called A Cord of Three Strands, it details the life of her eccentric family in such diverse places as NYC and Kentucky, and the people they met along the way.

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