When I was nine and enamored with Charlotte’s Web, I would sneak outside after bedtime in search of the spider that would save me. I didn’t know what I needed saving from, but I knew that in my story, I was the character who required rescue. I never found a big barn spider like Charlotte, but a few times—as I crawled along the smooth wall of our adobe house—I came upon a deer peering at my mother through the bedroom window, its front hooves propped on either side, its breath fogging the glass. Flicking the flashlight off, I tucked the tip of my tongue into a molar and slithered by.
I didn’t mention it until I was fourteen, after my father had left us and my mother was driving me to the city for counseling because of the scabs on my arms. She said, “Cookie, don’t you think it’s one of your nightmares?” but there was a pause first. Traffic clogged behind her as she tapped the brakes and squinted at street signs. She drove the way she lived, tentatively and with such focus that she missed most of what went on around her.
“I saw it more than once,” I said. “You were changing into your nightgown, but you hadn’t closed the blinds.” What I didn’t mention was the way she was changing, how she slowly slid her thumbs along her bra straps while gazing at the spiked buck, her thigh highs and panties around her ankles, her bare skin glowing under the dimmed lamplight.
“Stop being ridiculous and help me find this place.” She suppressed a yawn, a nervous habit, while I pointed out the street she’d just missed.
As I sat on the counselor’s slick leather couch, spine straight as a wooden chair, stomach muscles clenched, I thought about the deer. Now that I’d spoken the memory aloud, I realized maybe there was unfinished business there, but we talked about my father and why I thought he’d left.
“Sometimes children blame themselves. That can feel pretty good compared to having no control over a situation.” The counselor had a greasy face and a thick black mustache shadowing plump, wet lips. I found him awfully unattractive, just the kind of man my mother would give her doe-eyed smile to in the grocery store.
“Maybe my mother was having an affair.”
He sat up straighter, fingered the mustache, and asked me to elaborate. I could tell he wanted her. Hair fully teased, she was nearly six feet tall, yet she moved with the wobbly uncertainty of a child. I assumed most men wanted her, initially.
“She seems bored,” I said, because it was true, and because it felt good to have the answer. Though she was loyal and had committed herself to my father, she was also stunning and lively and charismatic, and week after week my father watched TV instead of taking her to dinner, rolled his eyes at her best jokes, and spent our vacation fund restoring his 1970s Chevy pickup. The basket beside her recliner was full of travel magazines featuring Caribbean beaches and cosmopolitan cities, but she had never left New Mexico except to visit relatives in Texas. He had been married before and would cross his arms and mumble about a man’s right to relax when she wanted a weekend in the city or a nice dinner out.
The counselor gazed at me and said, “Perhaps she needs a man who knows how to treat her,” and I said, “Perhaps,” because, like my mother, I couldn’t not give men what their eyes asked for. But I was tired of being fourteen and life bringing its endless questions. I wanted simplicity at home and there was no way it would come in the form of a new man.
My counselor became my father’s replacement—he piled his dirty laundry with ours, filled the medicine cabinet with his prescription drugs, and commuted to Albuquerque for work. I stayed out until after dark with other lost kids, pacing the streets and peering into the glowing windows of nuclear families that seemed to have figured it out. After dinner I would disappear into the bathroom for too long, leaving the door cracked and feeling both satisfied and embarrassed when no one came looking.
My mother talked of quitting her job and riding with the counselor to Albuquerque to take classes at UNM. For Christmas, he bought her a swimsuit two sizes too small and promised to take her to Cancun. They ignored my scabs, bulging cheeks and weight fluctuations, and when Ms. Cahill, the school counselor, called in concern, my mother told her that a doctor from the city was treating me, a man who had spent more years in school than Ms. Cahill had been alive.
When my father came to take me out for my birthday in his freshly painted, midnight blue pickup, he peeled his sunglasses off, flipped my scabbed wrist over, and said, “What the hell is wrong with you?”
He and my mother launched into a brief but furious fight, and he left without hugging me goodbye. My mother chased his truck down the street, screaming that he would fall apart without us, then that she was falling apart without him. The counselor watched with slouched shoulders and not long after that, they broke up and he left, and in her despair, for a while she became lost to me, too.
Nights she was out trying to be happy with new boyfriends, I would kneel on the bathroom floor and cut or puke. Sometimes I would leave traces of blood or vomit, but the bathroom always gleamed the next day and my mother would bustle past my bedroom, eyes glued forward. Those mornings I would pick scabs from the sheets and laugh at the girl I’d become.
The night I found out my father had moved with his new family to California, I went to the bathroom and pressed a razor blade to my bicep, the next clean spot. Something thumped against the house and my stomach jumped, not with fear but anticipation, like the time I thought a neighbor boy was about to kiss me. Clunk, clunk, it went again.
I turned the light off and watched for his regal animal head, lit by the moon: first the antlers—now probably sprawling and heavy, then the ears—surely gray and scarred, and then those big, black, expressionless eyes. I understood it then, my mother’s need to be fully observed, a luxury her beauty had always obstructed. We may have shared problems, but not their causes. The deer didn’t show, and when I went outside to see what the noise was, I found nothing but a big beetle dying on its back.
Eventually, my mother stopped plucking gray hairs and staying out late. We would eat in front of the TV, and then I’d lie in bed doing homework or reading library books—a better path to escape, I told myself, though the other methods hadn’t been a way out so much as an attempted way in.
One evening, after dabbing vitamin E cream on my scars, I put on sweats and baked a frozen pizza that I ate while watching a big gray spider build its web on the front porch. It was a textbook web, like Charlotte’s, its concentric orb pattern perfectly balanced by spokes connecting to thick foundation lines. My mother joined me for a slice of pizza. “Looking good these days,” she said, and I nodded, pointing out part of the web before realizing she was probably talking about me.
But spiders were easier conversation pieces than girls with bad habits, so I continued on. “Every morning it takes its web down, and every night it has to rebuild,” I said. What I didn’t say was that it was the most genuine act of resilience I’d witnessed in a long time.
“Must be one stupid spider.” She smoked her last cigarette—a new habit—and patted my leg before I could jerk away. “I’m going to 7-Eleven. Can you get rid of it while I’m gone?”
I kicked my feet up on the deck rail and crossed my arms, gazing past her. “Watch for deer.”
She squinted, jiggling the keys.
“Didn’t you see the paper? Delfina Gonzales ran over a big buck and it trashed her car.”
I wanted her to weep, but it couldn’t have been a surprise and probably wasn’t her deer, anyway—they don’t have much of a life expectancy where there are busy highways, and we lived in a place meant to be passed through. She knew that better than I did, and her shrug was just the sort of hardened we were both after.
When she started the truck, the spider’s web glistened in the headlights: a beautiful twelve-hour palace. The brakes squeaked as she eased into the world, and I swept the web away as if we were women who knew how to look after ourselves.