This is what I remember.
There is this girl. Me. My name is Victory Barnes and I hate it. It seems like with a name like this I ought to be saving people's lives and winning wars, stuff like that, being some kind of martyr. I feel kind of stupid sometimes, like, I'm just me. My mother told me that she named me Victory because that's what I was, born just before she got sent away to prison for selling drugs. My mother told me that she was so grateful I turned out okay, after all the dope she did when she was pregnant that she just had to thank God and call me Victory. Nobody hardly ever calls me that, not even my grandma. Sometimes when she's mad at me she calls me that, loud and slow, VIC - TOR - EE, and I know that I'm really in trouble, but she doesn't get mad at me too often. Most everybody calls me Vicky, or Mouse, and that suits me just fine. Except for my mother; she always calls me Victory.
Mama is coming home after twelve years. Grandma bought me a new dress for the occasion, a white lacy one with a green bow in the back. I think it makes me look like a baby, but I don't say anything, I just chew my gum and wait for grandma to finish ironing it so I can hang it up on my closet door. I don't know how to feel about the whole thing, so I decide not to feel anything at all. Look at me: tall, skinny, secretive, like any 12 going on 13 black girl. I am laying across my bed, savoring some of my last few moments in my room. Tomorrow I will have to give this bedroom to my mother and move to the couch.
My mother is a heroine addict who got sent to prison for selling drugs in school yards. My father was a heroine addict, too, but he's dead now. I was born addicted to the junk, and sometimes, deep down, I feel like I'll always be a heroine addict, always have a gaping hole inside needing to be filled. Sometimes I hurt so bad, feel so empty, and I just want something, anything to fill me up or make me forget. That's how it is, being me. I guess that my mother felt bad for a long time, that's why she started doing drugs. Except knowing this doesn't make me feel any closer to her. Gazing at the watermarks on the ceiling, I wonder what it would feel like to be pregnant. Not so alone, probably. Loved. But I also wonder how something like a baby could fit into someone like me.
My grandma won't let me wear lipstick, so I wait until I am down the street before I pull out my compact and put it on under a tree. I am basically a good kid, obedient, respectful, but things are changing inside, I feel all confused most of the time now. I want to be a woman, grown. I walk over to Tommy's house. Tommy's mother isn't home so we have the place to ourselves. Tommy's mother is hardly ever home. We get high with some weed Tommy got from her brother and sit out on her front porch, sipping Kool-Aid and talking. Two girls sitting on some steps, helpless against the sun pressing down, wilting slightly. Will we live? We're women, wrapped up in little girls. Right now I am happy because Tommy likes my lipstick; I just got it the day before; cherry plum. I stole it from Rite Aid. One of the reasons that we are best friends is that she notices things about me, little things, not just lipstick, but different moods and things. Paying attention goes a long way in friendships.
"What do you want to be when you grow up, Mouse?"
I shrug. "I don't know." Because how can I say that I don't want to be anything, except alive, and loved? I don't like the question, it makes me uncomfortable. Sometimes I wonder if I'll be alive after high school. "Maybe a lawyer."
Tommy nods. "Yeah, that's cool. I think I want to be a dancer."
We don't say anything for a little while. Then, "Tipsy."
"Butter." It is our game. We found new words, mostly from the television, but sometimes from other places, like the dictionary or the back of a cereal box, and whoever had the best word wins. We've been playing it since we first met.
"That's a good one. Tropical." We are silent again and I look out into the street, catching pieces of life, but not the whole thing, scraped knees, the sound of a baby crying, car engines, deep laughter. It's hot. "Marooned" is my word. I taste it on the tip of my tongue. It's a good word. It fits.
"Hey, you nervous about your mama comin' home?"
I shrug. We leave it at that.
"Hey, there's Jay." Jay is my boyfriend.
"So, what's up, ladies?" he asks. He sits in between us.
"We're high," Tommy informs him.
"Yeah? Cool. Got any left?"
"Nope, it's all gone."
"Damn. That's all right, though, I can get some later. What y' been doin' all day?" He puts his hand on my leg. We grew up together, me, Jay, and Tommy, and a bunch of other kids in the neighborhood. Last year Tommy and me started to think Jay was cute; he chose me. Tommy is cool about it, though, because she loves us both and she has plenty of other guys trying to talk to her anyway. Also, that's just the way she is - really generous.
Tommy yawns. "Nothin', watchin' tv."
"Yeah, me, too, girl." The three of us talk for a little while about tv, then Jay takes my hand and we go inside, heading for Tommy's room. Tommy stays outside, watching guard and smoking a stolen cigarette. I can hear Tommy humming as we go inside. We've had sex three times before. Actually, I don't like sex much. The kissing part is okay, almost like what I imagine it's like in the movies, but the actual thing isn't like the movies at all - no soft music, no candles or slow motion camera angles, nothin'. Just sweating and grunting and waiting for it to be over because it hurts and is kind of boring. Sometimes there are little flickers of something like pleasure or whatever . . . .. but mostly, I think it's stupid. It just seems like the thing to do. Usually I think about something else - a little baby inside, a trip to the beach, ice cream with someone who says he's my daddy. Now I just think of my word, over and over again, and I mumble it, too, softly, into Jay's neck. Marooned.
Afterwards we lie in Tommy's bed; Jay trails a finger along my arm, making mindless patterns.
"My mama's coming home tomorrow. What should I do?"
He shrugs and reaches into his pants pocket for a cigarette. "Just love her, I guess. She's your mother."
"But I don't even know her, she's like a stranger, or something. It makes me sad."
"She's still your mother."
"I think I hate her."
I shake my head silently because I don't know; I don't know anything at all.
"It'll be alright." He reaches for me. I sit up, annoyed with him. He's so stupid, sometimes. I start to put my clothes back on. Marooned. It's a perfect word. "I'm going back outside." Tonight I lay in my bed alone for the last time. I stare at the ceiling, dark now, the water marks turned into shadows, and try to remember things about her. There isn't much, only brief visits to the prison, once a month, sometimes every couple of months. She chainsmoked and touched my hair a lot, saying how pretty I was. She cried, sometimes. She and grandma talked in low voices, holding hands. I remember the first time I realized that the woman behind the bars was my mother, really believed it. Before that I had sort of thought that grandma was my mother. It was a strange feeling, like the first time you realize your own name. VIC - TOR - EE. Grandma had tried to get me to write her, sometimes, but I could never think of anything to say, so I didn't. When grandma talked to her on the phone, she would call me over to say hello, and I would, but I would be embarrassed. My mother would ask me about school and whether I was doing my homework and being a good girl, and I would tell her that yes, I was, but it felt like I was talking to some distant aunt or something. I often imagined how my mother must have looked pregnant. Sometimes, when I think I hate her, for not being here, with me, I feel like I'm in prison with her. Still trapped inside of my mother's skin. Because I have this fantasy about who my mother should be, what kind of woman, and the real one doesn't match up with the one who tucks me in at night, washes my hair, gives me hugs that last for days, and just generally knows me better than I know myself. It is a long night. I touch myself to pass the time, and it's comforting, better than sex.
It is the morning of my mother's release. Grandma bustles around the kitchen like a little bird. Grandma is never still, she's like a bird that has to keep on flying or it'll die. She is always cooking, or cleaning, or talking on the phone or something. The only time she's still is when she falls asleep in front of the tv before she goes to bed. It's obvious she's nervous because she's moving around more than usual. I pick at my oatmeal, uncomfortable in my dress and new shoes and irritable.
"Stop playing with your oatmeal, Mouse, just eat it."
"Okay, Grandma." I make little patterns with my spoon. I hate eating.
"Vicky, mind you don't get any on your dress."
She sips her Sanka while standing at the sink, gazing at me over her coffee cup. I glare at my bowl; I hate being looked at.
"You look just like your mother did at your age. Skinny, quiet little thing. She was so sweet. Funny, how things can get ruined. Your mother was so innocent, too innocent really. That was probably my fault. And when she took up with that boy I should have known somethin' wasn't right, but I just . . . . well, anyway . . . . "
I don't say anything, preferring to create hills and valleys in my oatmeal.
She sighs. "Girl, just put it in the sink and go on."
I go outside and sit on the front steps, waiting for Grandma to finish getting ready. Sometimes it's hard for me to think about things in the moment. Like, now, I am thinking of how pretty Grandma looked in the kitchen a few minutes ago, in her flowered dress, the light from the kitchen window touching her hair. I am thinking about the years we've spent together, just her and me. It was nice, just the two of us. When I was younger, Grandma would take me to the park for hours because she said that little girls need lots of sun to grow right. Like I was a plant or something. I am thinking about love, and marooned, and family and the aching hole inside. I wonder if my mother didn't get enough sun. Right now I want to know her, very badly. But I'm scared.
They hugged for a long time, both of them crying. I hang back, wanting to disappear. The woman who has just been freed, Mama, looks tired and a little scared. I shift from one foot to the other. Then she is looking at me, I can feel her eyes, looking at the one that lived, VICTORY.
I look down, then look up again as if I am hypnotized. I want her, so badly I can taste it. I want to know you. My mother opens her arms and I dive into them. For a moment, everything is perfect. I am not alone for this moment, I'm all filled up with her smell, her perfect mother smell of love, and I just want to cry because it feels so good. It is a moment long enough for me to relax, surrender, want to scream; I hadn't realized I was so tense with waiting. I wonder if this is what sex is supposed to feel like. Then the moment is gone, I don't know how, and I am crying, we both are, but our tears don't bring us any closer. We've already moved away from each other and I hate her, I really hate her, because we don't know each other at all. I wrap my arms around myself and look away, retreating into myself. I wonder why it is so hard to feel anything.
This is what I remember.