An excerpt from Baltimore writer Caryn Coyle’s absorbing memoir in progress about life with her troubled mother.
I put a fresh blade, called Vibrance, in my Venus razor. The razor blade is supposed to “gently exfoliate.” Just the same, I am careful. I draw the razor up the front of my right leg, from the tip of my ankle. Using a light touch, I think of the first time I shaved my legs.
It was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the third state in which my family lived. There would be five states altogether: Massachusetts, Florida, New Mexico, Colorado and finally, Maryland.
In Albuquerque, I was 13. We lived in a big, split level house on a corner lot. Stones covered the front yard with small, bushy fir trees scattered along the front of the house. “Sweeping the rocks” was one of my chores.
The bathroom in which I first shaved my legs was my parents’. It had a tall, fern tree, planted in a square, tile section perpendicular to the marble-topped vanity and the bathtub. Everything was a beige/pinkish color. I used my dad’s razor because I was afraid to ask my mother if I could shave my legs.
My mother’s anger was constant. She was terrifying.
I don’t remember most of my trips to the emergency room. I was there for a dislocated shoulder and stitched three times in one year — to sew my lip back together, to close the gash in the back of my head, and one on my left temple — when I was four years old. My mother told me in a voice that was curt, that my father answered the phone with, What did Caryn do now? Each time she had to call him at work. To tell him of another hospital visit.
Caryn was clumsy, she said.
I thought my family moved the first time from Massachusetts to Florida because my dad had gotten a better job. The truth was that we moved because my mother had run over our neighbor, killing her.
We never talked about it. I was sitting in the front seat of our large boat of a car when it happened. I was in second grade. We were almost home. It was winter. Afternoon. Overcast. Snow was piled as high as cars if they parked on the sides of our street. I remember my mother beside me at the steering wheel. Through the windshield, I watched Mrs. Fayle look up and down Clifton Avenue, step out from between two tall snow banks and walk directly in front of our car.
When she was struck, the bump didn’t seem that bad. But I heard it. Mrs. Fayle’s head swayed back. Her jaw dropped open. She fell and disappeared. I remember looking at nothing but snow through the windshield. A tire tracked street of gray slush and tall walls of white on either side of the car. The few seconds it took to stop the car seemed much longer: a sickening, frightening sensation that has stayed in my memory.
My father’s business went bankrupt in Florida and we returned to Massachusetts, relocating in another town, Wellesley Hills. On Sundays, our family would pile into the car for a drive. Once, my father drove us to Marblehead, where we used to live.
Along Marblehead Neck, a small, affluent part of the town that enclosed the harbor, my mother spoke of the people she knew who lived there. They all had bigger, more impressive houses that we had. I sat in the back with my siblings, alarmed by the tone of my mother’s voice.
It was accusatory, berating. When she started to cry, my stomach rolled and my head fizzed. My father did not speak. He looked straight ahead while my mother cried. The rest of us sat silent, ashamed. We never drove to Marblehead again.
I place the Venus razor on the same spot on my leg that I had shaved – decades ago — with my dad’s razor. His had a flat blade with sharp edges on the sides of a small rectangle. I had figured out how to twist the handle so the top of my father’s metal razor opened to fit the blade.
I remember the fear with which I lived when I was so much younger. The first time I shaved my legs, a four or so inch strip of skin, about a half-inch wide, came up off the front of my right leg before I realized what it was. The area where my skin had been was whiter than the rest of my leg, at first. Then it turned red, when the blood and pain, like a scalding burn, exploded.
Caryn Coyle’s fiction and essays have been published in several literary journals. Her work can also be read on the websites, CBS Baltimore, The Baltimore Post-Examiner, and Welcome to Baltimore, Hon. She has won awards for her fiction from the Maryland Writer’s Association, Missouri Writer’s Guild, and the New Millennium Writings.