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
"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,
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
"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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