by Stacey Greene
A Mexican waiter once folded a napkin into a rose and laid it on my table. He must have been watching me crying there, where I sat across from my mother. I looked up from the napkin-rose and saw his smile, and I felt the stares of cooks from behind a half-wall. I was skinny then.
I think of my young brother, his voice beginning to crack, and know that it shouldn’t make me wish he was little again. His stomach folds over his boxers now, and when I see him I ask if he is eating.
I have moved from home. My parents talk of making my old room into the guest room, with a new larger bed. But no one ever visits them. When I call to say I can’t come home, afterwards while we talk I can tell my mother is only listening to the television.
The waiters here, everywhere, smile and seat you. Smile and give you drinks. Smile and take your order. No man has ever given me a rose like that again – something with petals for my feet like Cleopatra. Something to speak to me when he could only use Spanish and I have English. Something light and there only for me to wipe the salsa from my mouth.
My mother cries in restaurants, too, most times when we are together. We will cry wherever we go, and I can’t help but watch her ring come to her face to wipe her wet cheeks dry. It must scratch and leave scars, but I can’t see them. Maybe they have become the laugh lines of her face.
Her fingers are the thinnest I’ve seen. She is a big woman and carries it so good that I’ve been with her when men have flirted and she has no idea what they mean. I have to explain and she asks me to make sure and tell my father when we get home. Later she will smile from her extended recliner and say “Don’t tell him that Stacey!” He will pretend not to hear, or maybe he never really does hear. They are that pattern I learned to line up in second grade.
I don’t remember if I took that rose home with me, or left it on the table for him to give away again. Would he have thrown it in with the trash behind the building? Maybe it is in a pile of all the other napkin roses for little girls. I want to know what the pile for women looks like.
I like to think my mother knows. She bought her engagement ring twenty years after my parents were married. They are still together. It was her right, then it was her duty. Or it is her money and she can buy commitment if she wants to. She wears it only when her fingers don’t swell, so it will come off easier. And even then, they are so thin. Come to think of it, neither of my parents wear their rings anymore.
When I come home she wants to go shopping, always for my clothes. She sits on a bench inside the handicapped dressing room with me and puts the clothes I won’t buy back on hangers. I watch her in the mirror, bowing my back down so she will see less of me. I am embarrassed now to show her my stretch marks, or bras that fit too tightly around my back, or panties that are old and not silk like I used to have. She tells me that all pants fit differently. We leave with nothing.
The day she bought the ring she’d tried on a shirt at the fat people store, as she calls it. It didn’t fit right, meaning it didn’t hide her rounded stomach, so we went to Zales. She slipped the ring down and stretched out all her fingers beneath the lights. I watched it come alive there, and I know that she was looking at her hand, not at the ring. I look too, trying to find the outward bend in her right ring finger, where her knuckles knot in the winter from arthritis. It makes me think of her fingernails, so fragile and thin that they chip backward. When I was younger she let me bend them all the way forward until it
I’ll never remember why I cried for that napkin-rose. I do remember that when my brother was ten he folded dollar bills into frogs. This took him only a few minutes. For a Valentine’s Day, long before his voice ever cracked, he folded for me a pointed, three dimensional heart from a sheet of notebook paper, and jumped a dollar frog toward me, laughing through crooked teeth. He is the greatest person I have ever met.
You come into this sort of thing thinking, and hoping, that he will never grow out of his baby fat. His genes say he will be tall – taller than me and my mother – and then his stomach will stretch and flatten. He’ll probably get married, he’ll be a father.
In the Spring we go to the new Mexican restaurant in my hometown, Tres Hermanos. The only woman that works there is short, broad-shouldered with no neck. She is a hostess and brings our food, and I have never heard her speak. I wonder if she is a sister.