Damaged Goods is my contribution to the anthology The Milk of Human Kindness: Lesbian Authors Write about Mothers and Daughters. I recommend you buy the book from Amazon.com.
“Okay, it’s official. I now want my mother.”
I looked over at the older woman sitting next to me and I knew, just knew, that I was being pathetic. Delaney’s blue eyes didn’t say it, but the bleating little voice inside kept telling me so. Quit being such a baby. It’s just a cut finger.
“Do you want me to call her?” she asked.
I looked back at my left hand, which I was holding gingerly with my right. I could feel the blood pooling inside the light wrapping the doctor had left me with. It was pulsing out of my body at a rapid rate, and the sensation left me scared and nauseous.
You don’t want your mother, the calm part of my brain said. What you want is for the woman next to you to quit looking at you like you’re a freak, and put her arms around you and tell you it’s going to be all right. What you want is to rest your head on her shoulder and know that someone else is in control.
I swallowed hard and tried not to puke on the floor of the emergency room.
“No,” I answered, my tongue feeling about 17 sizes too big for my mouth. “By the time she gets down here it’ll all be over anyway. Better to wait till we find out what the damage is, I guess.”
“Okay.” She stayed where she was, sitting next to me, but apparently not inclined to touch me. Not that I could blame her. I was a mess.
Living alone for a long time has left me inclined to strange solitary habits … like sleeping late, wandering about my house naked and letting the housework slide from time to time. So when I sliced my finger wide open one Saturday, severing an artery, a bunch of nerves and, for all I knew, the tendon as well, I was bare-assed and in that fascinating place – a locked, messy house with nothing but a cell phone and a list of acquaintances to call.
I’d managed to do what I’d needed to do, in between fainting twice. I’d crawled into clothes, contacted Delaney, and gotten myself out of the house. But by the time she pulled up in her car, I was covered in blood, sweating like a racehorse and still barefoot. She was lucky I was wearing underwear – shoes were not an option.
In the emergency room another wave of nausea hit me and I had the bad feeling I was going to pass out again. I slid down in the seat, stared at the ceiling, and tried not to think about the buckets of blood pumping out of my finger. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder, and it patted me tentatively.
“You’ll be right,” Delaney said quietly. It wasn’t quite what I was looking for, but who the hell was I to ask or expect anything from someone who was more a colleague than a close friend? I was lucky she was there at all.
“My mother would be bloody useless in this situation anyway,” I muttered, trying anything to take my mind off things.
“Yeah. She’s worse than I am when it comes to the sight of blood,” I explained. “At least I’m okay around other people’s blood. It’s just mine that freaks me out. But she goes pale and wan at the slightest suggestion of claret.”
“Mmmm, that’s probably just because it’s her daughter’s blood.” Her hand had long since withdrawn from my shoulder.
“Did you go all weak at the knees when your boys were bleeding?” I asked. Her three sons were grown and out of the house.
“Nope, but then I love all this medical stuff.”
“I got that impression,” I said wryly. She would have been sitting out in the waiting room at that moment, but had expressed an interest in seeing the inside of my finger at close quarters. I was secretly delighted to have her nearby.
I made the mistake of moving and felt the fuzzy vision that had been a precursor to fainting begin again. “Uh, Del?”
“You’re about to pass out again, aren’t you?” I nodded. “Hang in there. I’m going to go and roust the doctors.”
Less than a minute later I was flat on my back on a gurney, with a nurse and two doctors gathered around me. I could just see Delaney leaning against the wall, behind the doctors.
“If you really want to see, Del, you should come around this side,” I told her.
The senior doctor said, “We need to put some local anesthetic in this.”
“That’s going to hurt,” the nurse said helpfully. “But don’t anticipate it.”
Yeah, right.I bit down on the outside of my right thumb, anticipating like a son of a bitch.
“Okay, here we go,” the medic said.
I wrapped my right leg around the raised metal rail on that side of the gurney, trying hard to get as far away from my injured hand as possible. My eyes were squeezed tight, and I bit down harder.
“Yeowww shiiitt,” I yelped as the first needle dug in. I knew I’d jumped.
The doctor said, “Okay, we’ve got a few more of these to go before we can cover the whole area. But hopefully the anesthetic will start to kick in soon.”
“Yeah, hopefully so,” I muttered around a chunk of my thumb. Another yelp and I began to wonder if I wasn’t in fact the biggest wuss on the planet. Did other people gnaw off their good hand just because they had three needles sticking in an open wound? Just then I felt gentle fingers wrap around the hand I was biting down on.
“Here,” Delaney said. “Squeeze on my hand instead. You’ll do less damage.” She looked as self-conscious as I felt as she rearranged our hands into a more comfortable position. Maybe it was the rainbow ring the doctor had taken off my injured finger that was making her nervous. It was obvious to the room where my preferences lay. Perhaps she thought they believed we were partners.
I couldn’t help it; I enjoyed that thought.
But it was only fleeting, as another needle bit deep. I didn’t squeeze, though. Instead I found my thumb gently rubbing across the back of her hand.
“You’re supposed to be squeezing,” she reminded me, a half-smile playing across her lips. Why on earth am I looking at her lips?
The doctor announced, “Okay, we’re going to give those a couple of minutes to take affect, and then we’re going to put some stitches in to see if we can stop the bleeding.”
They left us alone for a few minutes and Delaney kept holding my hand. It felt nice, soft and warm, a delicate contrast to the sharp stinging sensations the other side of my body was experiencing. I tried to remember the last time anyone had touched me and found I couldn’t pinpoint it. My brain was working triple time, adding more significance to her touch than it could possibly deserve. Why do I crave it so much?
The doctors returned.
The senior resident said, “Right then. I’m going to drop a couple of internal stitches in there to see if we can’t pull the two ends of the artery together.”
“How will you know?” Delaney asked. I was beyond caring. I just wanted the tendon to be okay. And it wasn’t about the pain, or the surgery it would require. It was all about my mother. Having to call my mother down from the mountain to look after my cat, and tut-tut about the state of my house – that was what was making me will the universe to see things my way, for once.
“Well, if we manage to catch it with the stitches, we’ll take the tourniquet off and it won’t bleed,” the doctor explained. “If it bleeds, then my guess is both sides of the artery are cut, and that,” he put a hand on my shoulder, “will take some microsurgery to fix, I’m afraid.”
Great.Delaney gripped my hand a little tighter, and I returned the squeeze, turning my head away from the sight of the doctor approaching the gaping cut in my finger with what looked like a large crochet hook.
“Here we go,” the doctor warned.
I swear it hurt. I swear that despite five needle-loads of lidocaine, it still hurt. I’m fairly certain I cursed. But all I did was chafe the back of her hand with my thumb. I couldn’t bear to grip too hard.
Finally it was done and the doctor removed the tourniquet as we all held our breath.
“Is it bleeding?” I whispered, still not keen on looking at the mangled lump at the end of my finger.
“No,” Delaney said, her fingers wrapped around mine. I could hear the smile in her voice. I breathed out, happy that the first hurdle had been leaped.
“Okay, good,” the doctor said. “Now let’s see what you’ve done to the tendon.”
He rooted around with gay abandon, and for once I dug my fingers into the palm of Delaney’s hand. She didn’t wince, bless her.
“I want you to bend your finger,” he said, pressing against the top pad of the offended digit. “Push back against my pressure.” I did my best, though it didn’t feel like any finger that belonged to me. “That’s good, that’s good,” he urged. “I think you’ve just nicked the edge of the tendon. You wouldn’t be able to bend it like that if you’d done more than that. So I’m just going to sew up the outside, and then you’ll be done.”
All I could think of was, thank God my mother doesn’t have to see the pile of dirty dishes in my sink, or the remains of last night’s Chinese meal, or the toilet that needs a good scrubbing. Oh yeah, and avoiding surgery was an added bonus.
In quick time the doctor inserted a line of stitches across the wound. As soon as he stopped, Delaney very deliberately put my hand on my stomach and let go. Like a psychotherapist whose internal alarm clock’s gone off near the end of a session. My disappointment was palpable and, I’m sure, written all over my face. She raised a quizzical eyebrow at me before she retreated to lean against the wall, waiting as the nurse fussed around me.
The nurse gathered together the bandages and betadine and God knew what else she needed to dress the wound, talking all the while about doctors and politics and how the local newspaper had recently misrepresented the hospital.
“What do you do for a living?” she asked as she wrapped my finger in tight white cloth.
“I’m a writer,” I replied, flicking a glance at Delaney, whose eyes were laughing at me from the corner. While we had been waiting for attention, we’d agreed not to mention we worked for the local newspaper, for just this reason.
“Oh really? How interesting. What do you write?”
“Lesbian romance fiction.” The words were out of my mouth before I’d even considered that my honesty might make Del even more uncomfortable than she already was. But the nurse was very pleased with my answer.
“Oooo, really? Anything I might have read?” She looked at me candidly.
You just never know when you’re going to run into family.I smiled wryly and threw on my most attentively flirtatious expression – not easy when you’re covered in your own dried blood. “I doubt it,” I demurred. “My stuff is published in America – hard to get here.”
“That’s a pity,” she said. “I’d love to read your books some time. Now, here are some extra dressings.” She stuffed the bandages and tape into my jeans pocket for me, which was quite disconcerting. I could feel myself blushing. “You need to go see your own doctor on Monday, just to make sure you haven’t picked up an infection, and those stitches will need to come out in about two weeks.” She patted my arm. “You’re done.” She glanced over her shoulder at Delaney. “And your partner can take you home.”
I snorted. “I should be so lucky.”
“I’m not her mother either,” Delaney piped up from the other side of the room. “Before that occurs to anyone.” It suddenly hit me that maybe that prospect was more bothersome to her than being considered a lesbian.
Five minutes later she was driving me home. It was dark and quiet in the car, and I rested my head back, eyes closed. My hand was pleasingly numb, though I knew that wouldn’t last.
“Thank you,” I said quietly. “Not the most fun way to spend your day off, I know.”
“Oh, I don’t know, it’s been exciting so far,” she said dryly. “Aren’t you having fun?”
“Oh yeah. An absolute ball.”
“Well, I’m going to take you home and cook you dinner.”
Oh shit.“Uh, you don’t have to do that, honestly,” I said hastily. “The place is a mess, what with the blood, and everything. And …”
“Casey,” she said quietly, forcing me to look at her. “I’m not your mother. I don’t care if the house is a mess or not. You’re one-handed, I know you’re hungry – I can hear your stomach rumbling from here – and so am I. I’m cooking us dinner, and I’ll help you clean up the blood, as well.”
I didn’t know what to say. She wasn’t taking no for answer and that really wasn’t the response I wanted to give her anyway.
“Thank you,” I said again, wondering just what had made me pick Delaney’s name out of my cell phone’s memory.
Two hours later, the worst of the bloodstains were out of the carpet, and we had full bellies. I sat on the floor, leaning back against the couch, my head resting on the cushion. She relaxed on the couch, to my right. She’d raided my wine cellar and poured herself a glass of red, while I’d preferred to stay off the alcohol as long as there were weird drugs still floating around in my system.
“How’s it feeling?” she asked quietly.
“S’beginning to throb a bit.”
“I bet,” she murmured. There was a pause as she took another sip from her wineglass. “Can I ask you something?”
“Sure.” I glanced over my right shoulder at her. She was swirling the wine around, looking into its ruby depths.
“Did you really want your mother today?”
Holy shit … where did that come from?
I could give her the flip answer or I could lend the weight to it that the issue actually has for me, I thought. Opening a can of worms, though. Then again, I trust her. And she’s here.“Having her drive down would have been great in some ways, but it would have come with some strings attached.”
“What kind of strings?”
“Well, for example, I couldn’t have said ‘thanks for coming and holding my hand, Mum, but please don’t come in the house’ like I did with you.”
“Why wouldn’t you want her here?”
I chuckled. “Her disappointment and disapproval about my lack of house-pride would have been written all over her face. And I just don’t handle that well.”
There was a silence as she thought about that. “You let me in.”
I nodded. “Eventually, yes. But you don’t come with the same strings attached. Or if you do, you hide it better than my mother.” I smiled up at her.
“I’m not your mother,” she confirmed. “Besides, this place wasn’t so bad.”
“Well, thank you for not recoiling in disgust.” That brought a laugh from her. I decided I very much liked to hear her laugh, and watching it was even nicer. The faint lines around her eyes crinkled and deepened, somehow intensifying their sparkle. I liked that a lot.
I rested my head back and closed my eyes. My finger was throbbing nicely, now.
“What would have been good about having your mother there this afternoon?” Delaney asked, surprising me.
What a good question.“To be honest, I’m not sure how she would have reacted. I guess the idealized mother, the one in my head, would have held me and taken charge, and let me be a hurt child, instead of someone pretending to be a strong adult.” I swallowed around the lump that had suddenly materialized in my throat. “Whether my mother would have actually done those things, I’m not really sure.”
Even though I kept my eyes closed, I could feel Delaney looking at me.
“Didn’t she do those things for you when you were a kid?” she asked.
I sighed. “I don’t remember, honestly. She probably did, but I don’t have clear memories of it. I have fuzzy things that might be memories, but, then again, they might be what I want to remember, and not the truth.” I turned my head and looked at her. “She’d be devastated if she was listening to this conversation, by the way. I think if she didn’t do those comforting things, then it wasn’t out of malice.”
“What was it, then?”
“Her own fears, I guess. I know some of the emotional games her mother played on her.” I smiled wanly. “The beauty of hindsight.”
“But you didn’t know those things when you were little. So it must have had an impact on you.”
“I didn’t know them explicitly,” I agreed. “But her mother lived with us from the time I was about two, until she died when I was 12. So, I suspect I probably absorbed some of that knowledge, one way or another.”
We lapsed into another comfortable silence, and I let myself drift, happy to let her take the conversation wherever she wanted to go.
“If you didn’t really want your mother there, why did you say ‘okay, it’s official, I want my mother’?”
She’s got you there, kid. Nailed to the wall.“Um … well, I guess I was trying to lighten the mood a little.”
I swallowed. “And … I was probably hoping you would take the hint and act as a substitute.” Hoo, boy, the conversations I get myself into.
“And I didn’t do that, did I? I’m sorry.”
I shook my head emphatically. “No, don’t be sorry. You did what you could and what you were comfortable with, and frankly, I felt very lucky to have had you there at all.” I looked at her, disconcerted to feel myself blushing. “You’ll have gathered that this mother/daughter thing is a difficult issue for me, and it was unrealistic to pin those kinds of expectations on you. You were great and I’m very glad you were there.”
She leaned forward and put her empty glass on the coffee table. With a sigh she rested back again.
“I wasn’t very comfortable,” she admitted quietly. “And I’m not very sure why that was.”
“I have a few hypotheses.” She raised an eyebrow, silently telling me to go on. “The lesbian thing?”
She smiled. “You know me better than that. We’ve had this conversation many times.”
I shrugged. “It’s one thing to have done the schoolgirl experimentation thing and enjoyed it, and a whole other beast to be in a room full of strangers who are probably thinking you’re one half of a lesbian couple. That would make plenty of people squirm.”
“Maybe,” she murmured, half-conceding the point. “I think it’s more likely that I recognized that you wanted mothering. And I didn’t want to do that.”
“In case I misinterpreted it.” I nodded, swallowing the disappointment in myself that I felt. One of these days, Case, you’re going to learn how to do this.
I heard Delaney sigh again, and then she was sliding down to sit next to me on the floor, her left shoulder pressed against my right. I blinked at her, feeling slightly off-balance.
“You’re right,” she said, blue eyes calm and cool. “I didn’t want you to misinterpret my actions.” My stomach slid even further. “But not the way you think.” I raised my eyes to hers again, wondering just where this conversation was going. I must have looked as confused as I felt because she smiled at me gently. “I don’t want you thinking of me as a mother-figure,” she said softly.
She leaned closer and her right hand reached up. I felt her fingertips caressing my cheek and couldn’t believe what was happening.
She shook her head slowly.
“No. So let me put any misunderstanding to rest, right now.”
The kiss was soft and light and so full of promise it tugged at every cell in my body, it seemed. I didn’t respond for several moments, the shock enough to paralyze my senses. But then I fell into the warmth of her, the nearness of her, and it was all I had ever imagined it could be. I kissed her back, letting her know that this was wanted, needed even, but allowing her to set the pace. Finally she pulled back and we sat inches from each other, just breathing the same air.
“Not a lot of room for, uh, misinterpretation there,” I murmured.
“I would hope not.”
I grinned. “I may need further clarification, however.”
She chuckled. “I think that can be arranged.”
I had so many questions for her but for this moment we were just content to rest our foreheads together.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered finally.
“I should have done more than just hold your hand this afternoon. But I was self-conscious, and that was silly of me.”
I smiled. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Tell me more about your mother,” she asked.
I winced. “I actually try very hard not to think about my mother when I’m kissing a beautiful woman,” I said, trying to lighten the total weirdness of that statement.
Delaney brushed my fringe off my forehead with a slow finger.
“But there’s a fine line for you, isn’t there? You really need that nurturing, don’t you?”
I nodded, my tears close to the surface. The aching loneliness and skin-hunger had been a constant for me in recent years, seeming to gather intensity as I had grown older. She had found that void inside me in the course of one conversation. And had dived in.
“Where does the need to be mothered stop and the attraction start?” I whispered. “And for me the line is not so much fine, as … hard to locate.”
She kissed a stray tear from my cheek. “You worry too much about these things,” she said, not unkindly. “In the end, does it matter? You’re not in any doubt how you feel about me, are you?” She kissed the corner of my mouth, a feather-light contact that sent chills through me.
“Not in the slightest,” I husked.
A smile. “Good. And presumably, you don’t feel the same way about your mother.”
“I’m guessing the feelings couldn’t be more opposite.” I nodded. “In fact, my guess would be that what attracts you in women like me is the possibility of finding the kind of nurturing that you never got from your mother. Would that be a fair assessment?”
“Yes, Doctor. How much do I owe you?”
“I can do that.”
Our second kiss was longer than the first, infinitely more mutual, and every bit as wondrous. But the day was catching up with me.
“You look exhausted,” Delaney said softly when we broke apart.
I nodded. “Finger’s hurting like crazy too.”
“Want me to go home and leave you in peace?”
“No,” I answered, honestly. “But if you want to, I understand.”
She shook her head and smiled at me. “I don’t want to. Why don’t you rest your head here.” She patted her leg. “And we can watch a movie together. If you fall asleep, great. If not, at least you’ll have somebody to help take your mind off the ache.”
“Sounds wonderful,” I replied. “It’s been quite a day.”
“It has, hasn’t it? Thank you for calling me.”
“Thank you for answering.”