Sweet Baby yells “Mommy, look at me” as she leaps so high she could take flight. Even though they attend dance class every day, Sweet Baby’s mother takes hundreds of snapshots – blurs of pink taffeta, bouncing hair, fluttering arms.
I have one photo of us – my mother is looking away and I have a nervous smile, eyes squinting in the sun, dressed in hand-me-downs, hoping I look pretty. I don’t.
“Why can’t you ever smile right?” Mother always asked.
“You never taught me how,” I mumble as I remember her question, looking at the ground as if she can still hear me.
When Auntie died, I found an envelope in her closet. Inside was Mother’s address. All this time, she was only twelve miles away. I tried to put it out of my mind but I couldn’t. I had to see her.
I watch Mother from afar even though she wouldn’t recognize me now. I was the same age as her Sweet Baby the last time we were together. I don’t know why I am hiding from her. After twenty years, do I care what she thinks about me? Do I hate her?
She practiced playing house with me then dumped me like an old, broken Barbie doll. When she was ready to play family again, she replaced me with a newer, cuter model. But this time it is different. She has provided a fancy house, a big backyard and a father. Most importantly, there is love.
Every morning, the father hugs his family tightly before he leaves for work as if he never wants to let them go. He kisses both mother and daughter on their foreheads and waves good-bye, his teeth sparkling in the sunlight. The daughter squeals, “I love you!” All three laugh. His girls wave furiously until his Mercedes winds down their long private road and is no longer in sight.
After he leaves, the mother and daughter go to Sweet Baby’s pink and lavender room. The mother dresses her up in little designer dresses and swings her precious offspring around. Drunk from spinning, Sweet Baby twirls with glee then propels herself into a pile of stuffed animals.
Sweet Baby’s mother covers her mouth not wanting her happiness to escape because then she would have to share her precious emotions with the rest of the world. Neither one can stop smiling. Is that what happiness looks like?
Mother left me too long in soiled diapers. She yelled at me, not knowing that I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong. She let me rummage through other people’s trash for food. She left me alone for “just a few minutes” to visit our male neighbors. Then one day she left me alone, forever.
Sweet Baby’s mother chases the ice cream truck. I sink down in my car seat but leave the windows down so I can hear her voice. Sweet Baby orders two scoops with sprinkles on top.
After she devours her sundae she asks, “Can I have another one?”
“That’s enough,” says her mother.
Sweet Baby throws her spoon on the ground and stomps her feet. “I want another one.”
I cringe and wait for the slap.
“We can have more tomorrow,” reassures her mother. They walk hand in hand back to their house.
I remember Mother bought me a push-up pop from the ice cream truck once. As I rushed to eat it before it melted under the June sun, she waved at me for the last time. I think I imagined the wave. Perhaps I imagined the push-up pop.
I watch every day looking for clues of what went wrong between Mother and me. I study Sweet Baby and wonder if she is so much prettier or smarter than I was. What happened that made Mother erase me from her life and just start over?
But there are no clues. There are no traces of my mother’s pink streaked hair, grunge clothing or rage. The woman that I have been watching is beautiful, elegant and calm. She is not the monster who has haunted me all these years.
I can see she learned from her mistakes. I must move on. I must tell myself that I am the reason she is a good mother now.
I was her Practice Baby.
Yong Takahashi placed first in the Chattahoochee Valley Writers Conference’s National Short Story contest and in the Writer’s Digest Write It Your Way contest. Her works appear in Emerge Literary Journaland Rusty Nail Magazine. An upcoming piece will be featured in Cactus Heart.