Millie never quite understood what Mom was always doing in front of the mirror. Perhaps she was playing with her reflection; that’s what it looked like. She would put a leg forward, tilt her head, turn her back, and twist around to meet her own eyes again, staring judgmentally from the glass surface.
Once, Millie got into her mother’s makeup and landed herself in the biggest trouble she’d ever been in. Mom turned a strange face to her, different, altered; chastised her with a stormy voice. Millie felt chased into the corner, the way Mom was talking that day, reduced to a point on the wall, one-dimensional and faded. What are you doing, what do you care how you look, how old do you think you are. How hard is your life. Non-questions.
Millie understood there was love in this house. Love— like air— that simply exists. Love was not active. It was not youthful. Love hung like a used rag and permitted you to affirm its presence. It didn’t do much else, but it was enough. Love did not protect Millie’s bygone dream to marry someone like her father. Love did not protect Mom’s ego when Father took the tub of ice cream from her hands, commenting on her loose body. Loose. That word, lacking tension, somehow splayed all over. The way it fell out of the mouth softly, limp, like their love, the flesh of it sometimes hiding razorblades.
She knew this was somehow her fault, a little bit.
She knew this house had a before-Millie and an after-Millie.
And the after-Millie Mom loved herself a little less. Millie could tell, that wistful smile at the corner of her vision when they went through photo albums together and Mom pointed out pictures from ten years ago. She had since given up her position at the advertising agency. There was a point in Mom’s timeline when it produced another timeline, a daughter, and this point of convergence was where two lives began. One infant and a Mother. One child and a Sacrifice.
When Millie was five, Mom had let Millie touch her stomach. There were streaks in her skin, strange to the touch, ragged. She asked Mom what they were and she let out a flat laugh. She said they were from stretching too far and too thin. Millie wanted this decoration, too, wanted scars of triumph, evidence of some overextension. She looked at her plain belly and told Mom she’d like them too, and Mom laughed in that dead way again, answered no, honey, no. Or you can take mine, if you really want, see if you really like them.
Mom probably thought this would be a discarded memory soon, trampled by the pace of childhood. But three years later, this was still fresh in Millie’s mind. Mama has valleys in her skin. She hates them.
Mealtimes changed. Millie could never remember when exactly this change occurred; it had asserted itself so silently, the way most shifts in life do. Mom scooped up the mashed potatoes, deposited a good amount on Millie’s and Father’s plates, then hesitated before dipping back into the bowl. The spoon always went in carefully the third time. Inching to the food. Taking a stab at it. This wasn’t hunger anymore, Mom and her food, but an argument. It was some sort of light battle. Millie, a spectator, was rooting for Mom, but she always seemed to lose. Mom pushed most of her food onto Millie’s plate. Millie protested, but was silenced with an “I’m not hungry.” Then came the “eat that food, Millie.” She was full too— “what do you know, you’re a kid, you’re growing up, you need it. Eat.”
And what did Mom hope to do with all this?
Leave a legacy of shrinking oneself?
Of bottles of scar removal cream— of elasticity? The wish for it?
Millie now understood the valleys on Mom’s stomach, and they were history. Mom had expanded faster than her body could keep up. She had eaten, she had consumed, her life had grown and passed a threshold. Millie was an expansion. She was not wanted.
“Here, eat some more chicken,” Mom said, and pushed food from her own plate to Millie’s. Millie wordlessly looked up into Mom’s eyes as she chewed on her potatoes.
“Alright?” Mom asked.
“Yeah,” Millie answered after swallowing. She picked up her knife with dilatory movements and reluctantly cut the chicken thigh into pieces. Her nimble gaze darted to her mother and back, finding the niche of time to slip one into her napkin. She proceeded until she felt the weight of her entire meal and a brief lifetime’s worth of unspoken heartbreak in her napkin, and when she was finally alone, she threw it all into the bin.