The lioness

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There’s a memory about a woman I barely knew that I’ve never been able to shake. I wonder sometimes if she remembers me too or if she would approve of how I live my life, which is very close to how I assume she must have gone on living hers. I only sometimes think of these things.

After I turned ten, I noticed a beehive under the eaves of our house. My mother told me to leave it alone, that she and my father would take care of it. I got stung on the knee, anyway, and it was my fault, too. I’d wanted to know if I was allergic (I wasn’t) but it hurt a lot. Like a bitch is what I might have said back then. I ran across the street so my mom wouldn’t know. I couldn’t, not again, be grounded. It was a hot summer’s day, and I wasn’t allowed to play rough now that I was becoming a young woman. It was our neighbour’s new wife who saw me crying from her front porch while she smoked a long white cigarette. Even though kids think all grown-ups are unvaryingly old I’d always had the clear sense that this woman was different, younger than the rest of them somehow.

She never put down that cigarette. Not when she ran out to me on the sidewalk and not when she had me sit on the toilet of her upstairs washroom while she kneeled at my feet to disinfect the sting. I remember thinking that her big belly had flattened since the last time I’d seen her. I remember how she ashed on the bathmat, carelessly.

“Bees are assholes, aren’t they?” she said.

Her cigarette almost to the filter, she lit a new one with the tip of the old one. I couldn’t stop crying or catch my breath. 

“Crying’s better than smoking, I guess. My husband hates it when I smoke inside the house. And I know I shouldn’t. It’s bad for my baby.” She exhaled away from my face and used her other hand to disperse the stench. “You’re the one always getting everybody else in trouble on the block, aren’t you? The one I hear needs taming?” She smiled and fetched a Band-Aid and a tube of cream from the medicine cabinet to apply to my swollen knee.

Her calmness was strange and comforting. She spoke to me like I was a real person and she knew the real reason that I was crying was as deep, or deeper still, than my bee sting. It took me years to understand myself, but she already knew me.

“Don’t worry. The sting will be like your battle scar, which is kind of cool if you think about it. That’s what you can tell your mom. Tell her that you had a battle with nature and lost.” She laughed. Her dark brown hair bobbled with her. “But then again, I guess we always lose that battle.” She stood and lifted her T-shirt. I was mesmerized. “See these?” She pulled the skin taut. Pinkish stretch marks ran across her belly. “I lost too. It’s true that you can want two opposite things at once. Did you know that?”

I watched her puff on her cigarette. She turned towards the mirror and fidgeted with her skin. Then she let her shirt fall, and watched herself smoking for a bit.

“My husband wants me to quit again. You know, I didn’t smoke for the whole pregnancy. I was very good. Ate my veggies and things like that. Took my vitamins. Went to bed early. Didn’t get stung by bees. But now I’m back to it. And it’s gross. I’m gross.”

“You’re not gross,” I said. She looked down at my bloated, wet face with curious red-raw, hazel eyes like she’d forgotten I was there.

“Oh good. You’ve stopped crying.”

“Smoking’s not gross.”

She sat on the edge of the bathtub and faced me.  She inhaled into her cigarette with eyes closed then blew the smoke into my face. I took a deep breath in.

“That smells good,” I said.

“Oh does it? Alright, well, here. Have a taste then.”

And I’ve always wondered, more so now since the birth of my third son and since my husband and I moved to this tree-lined street in July, but maybe there are these critical moments that, in showing you your very nature, could have changed your life.

She smiled playfully. And my hand wasn’t even shaking when I took it from her. I think I almost had it between my lips, too – it felt light and lovely but as heavy as any rebellion – when she suddenly grabbed it from me in a twitch and a fury. She placed it into her mouth, sucked guiltily and looked back at the bathroom door as if she’d almost been caught un-taming me.

We heard a sound all of a sudden, high-pitched, frantic, too demanding.

“Oh shit, my baby.” Her legs untangled, the one from underneath the other, she stood, and was changed into a fretting mother. She threw the cigarette down into the sink, opened the faucet. Water gushed. Then she was gone.

No scar remains, just this memory, just this feeling that had she let me take that puff, touched where her lips had touched, had I known her secrets - anyway, I think of these things.