What We Can't Do

by Jessa Marsh

My step-dad has never seen my mother naked. He tells me while we're drinking in lawn chairs around the bonfire during the annual family reunion. The aunts and uncles have fallen asleep on our couches. My siblings have retreated, one by one, into their rooms. Phil, drunk and confessional, has stayed outside. He does this kind of thing with me. He's only fifteen years older and constantly reminds me that he has friends my age.

“She leaves her shirt on,” he complains. I instantly picture the baggy neon t-shirts she wears over her bathing suits.

“She just pulls her underwear to her thighs,” he says. Underwear I have pulled from the dryer a million times- old, threadbare, stained with hard water.

I consider mumbling “Tough break, Phil,” but think better of it. I just nod absentmindedly, stare at the dying embers of the fire, and wonder if he actually expects me to give him advice on opening my mother up sexually.

In high school once my mother came up behind me as I sat at the kitchen table, head buried in my trigonometry book. She leaned in so close I could smell the mint of her gum. After a few seconds of staring at cosigns and tangents over my shoulder, she wrapped her arms around me and kissed the top of my head.

Laughing, she said, “I never got this math junk. Ally, you are the exact opposite of me.”

I don't just lay there. With my boyfriends I am always the exhibitionist. Last weekend at Nathan's apartment I insisted we have sex in the hallway in front of his door. I didn't care if his neighbors caught us. They were just strangers.

Earlier today, mom took Phil by the hand at dinner and they danced while everyone ate and watched. My eyes scanned the room. Each face donned a sincere smile, showing that everyone was genuinely happy for them. I chewed overcooked steak and felt my cheeks flush. I didn't bring Nathan to the reunion, never even brought him home. We certainly don't dance with no music and I don't gaze into his eyes.

As my step-dad stumbles into the house, grumbling “It's getting late,” under his breath, I breathe in the cooling July air. For just a moment I wonder: if both mom and I are broken, in different ways, which one of us is more damaged.