What Are You Afraid Of?
You’re going where? my mother asks me.
To Texas. To meet some of the women I blog with.
Don’t do anything daring, she warns
Like what? I say.
It is 1960’s New Orleans. My mother stands in front of a full length mirror in a dressing room reminiscent of Blanche DuBois. The air ripples from the merciless summer heat as a breeze stirs the curtains and blows warm air in through the windows and balcony doors that are carelessly thrown open in a way that suggests decadence and revelry and women of ill repute. It is early evening, and Jazz and Zydeco music dance on the air into the hotel room from the French Quarter below.
I don’t like you staying in a hotel. Always keep your door locked. Do you know any of these women? I don’t like this.
She is there on holiday with four girlfriends, and it is a time when everyone left their doors open when they weren’t sleeping and people wandered through, drunk and friendly and lively with infectious spirits. Her hair is short and coiffed and stylish. She wears a white sleeveless blouse, with a collar and buttons paired with pink pedal pushers and a floral scarf around her head that nearly completes the ensemble. She is not sweating. There are no armpit stains, nor is there fabric stuck to her back. She is cool and calm, even as her young face is intent and frustrated as she tries to clasp a pearl choker around her neck. It is her third try, and her arms are starting to ache from the awkward position behind her.
Men target women who travel alone. I don’t like this. Don’t talk to any men.
She feels a pair of hands touch hers and startles with a polite sound of alarm as a voice says I’ve got that, as the ends of the necklace are expertly paired and she turns to see a handsome young man with friendly brown eyes and a rakish smile. The kind your mother warns you about.
She thanks him demurely, and they have a brief, flirtatious exchange where he invites her and her friends to join his group later, and he takes his leave with a kiss on the cheek.
Someone tells her that he is Patrick Wayne, movie and television star – but most famous for being John Wayne’s son.
A few days earlier, my father, whom she had been dating a short while, told her that while he liked her more than any girl he’d dated, he wasn’t ready to commit. She said that was fine, she was never getting married. Off she went to New Orleans, without him.
Don’t drink too much. And don’t get behind the wheel of a car.
Don’t go anywhere in a car with someone you don’t know. I don’t like this.
She and her friends spent a week on the Quarter, much of it with Mr. Wayne and entourage, dancing and drinking and riding the riverboats, wandering the Quarter and finding excuses to bump into each other. It was impulsive and bold and fun and completely uncharacteristic of the woman I know now. She returned to my father, who had celebrated his hard-won freedom with one mediocre date with a neighbor girl. My mother eventually reneged on her stance against marriage and my fate was sealed, (How’s your girlfriend? she would ask him, every now and then, for the next 39 years. Fine, I expect, he would respond. How’s Sinbad?)
Fifteen years ago this October I rushed home early from my New Orleans honeymoon to say goodbye to my father for the last time. I will miss him forever – a word that I now understand.
But he left behind a woman who could not put gas in a car. Who couldn’t use a debit card. Who will not go anywhere alone. Who’s anxiety-induced behaviors had been so enabled, and that were so intensified by the realization of her greatest fear – being alone – that she can’t imagine the world any other way.
She wanted to be a writer, too.
She submitted to two magazines. Two rejection letters was all it took. I tell myself she must not have wanted it very badly, that it is so easy to let life distract us from our dreams, to convince us that what we have is enough – and given that I was part of what had to be enough for her, I hope that she made peace with that decision.
I received my first rejection letter from a magazine that no longer exists. I can’t remember the name. It took me twenty years to try again.
I don’t want my children to wonder why I never did.
I hate making mistakes, particularly in front of people. I am afraid of losing, because I’m afraid that’s all anyone will see.
But I try anyway.
I am terrified of being lost. When I drive long distances, I obsessively check my directions, to the point where it distracts me from the road, because I fear missing my exit and the Big Bad Wolf that awaits me at the next one.
But I go anyway.
I don’t like confrontation. I fear being outgunned, outsmarted, out trash-talked.
But if you leave me no other choice, I will fight.
The world will always be there to tell why you are going to fail.
You can’t listen.
Even when it’s your mother.
Even when it’s MY mother.
Don’t do anything daring.