“Guard the house, Panda,” my stepmom says. She’s talking to our three-legged dog.
A car hit him when he was a puppy. Gangrene. He’s some kind of mutant (the least likely explanation). Each time someone asks how he lost his leg, she changes the story.
We’re walking to the Vietnamese place down the street. She says their Pho tastes like water and the egg rolls like grease and yes, thinks the old, black, piss-covered thing limping around the kitchen will guard the two-bedroom “house” while we’re gone.
“Your dad and Howdy are having fun,” she says. Don’t get your hopes up—‘“Howdy” has a big mustache but no cowboy boots or hat. He’s an orthodontist. They used to take me with them on hunting trips and I would perch on tree stands for hours, watching them aim. I still don’t know Howdy’s real name.
My stepmom says everything she shouldn’t. She reads the menu in a “Vietnamese” accent, says something about the “crazy Oriental woman” who eats here every time we do. Pauses to dump three Splenda packets into scalding tea. Pretends no one hears her talk about cleaning shit off old men at the hospital. Then she laughs in a not-funny way before asking, point-blank, “Do you even know how many dicks I’ve seen?”
The waiter witnesses her lean across the table and, to my horror, adjust my bra strap. We went to Macy’s last weekend and I stuffed the underwear in a drawer, out of sight. Dad pointed it out anyway, even said the words “bra shopping.” Not just bras but clothes—we passed an expensive dress and as soon as I touched the fabric, it was mine. A haircut, too, that I ended up hating. I tried the dress on at home and it hung there, limp on my gawky girl body. When she said I’m growing into “a beautiful woman,” I laughed.
After dinner Panda follows me to the lawn. Bottles are stacked beside the recycling bin and Panda knocks them over—a couple walking past stops to watch. His next trick is to trip on the way up the stairs. Sniffs loud like he’s snoring when he smells pastries baking down the street. My stepmom bought a dozen. Sugar, gossip, clothes—isn’t that how women bond? Dad comes back late and the TV turns on, first static then sitcom laugh tracks. He’s been awake since five-thirty but joint pain keeps him up and my stepmom is a heavy sleeper. She talks in her sleep, mostly about patients and Dad.
This silence. These minutes before sleep that don’t hum with her voice saying something about everything. This person snoring open-mouthed in the next room, no-filter loud talker who sleeps too late, forgets to pay bills, breaks her toe drunk dancing at some shithole Dormont bar. This woman who buys 3D TVs but can’t work remotes, fears the impending doom of belly fat yet when she does eat vegetables, covers them in cheese to hide the taste. This adult.
I could tell you about her dad’s cancer, her teenage pregnancy, the dirt-poor Nebraska years of marriage. I’d say it word for word, or pretty close, because when she talks I’m supposed to listen. Get the haircut she likes, wear the clothes she picks out. Study her piercings, her fingers ringed with turquoise and onyx, her wine flushed cheeks. Look at the marks this world has left on her and listen to this oracle, my stepmother.
Ignore the heavy handedness of it all. A woman becomes Dad’s girlfriend becomes my stepmom and we do things stepmothers and stepdaughters do. Forget that father-daughter outings have disappeared. Don’t say it out loud—that Dad loves her so I have to. But if you asked my stepmom about me? I don’t think she knows my middle name.
Ten years ago, the fifth time I saw her. I sat on the floor in her old apartment and Panda’s fur was everywhere, clumps sticking to my legs. Dad’s hand on her knee. They sat side-by-side on the couch and she taught me how to braid.
I felt it then. This stranger, her funny stories and pretty jewelry, her careful fingers crisscrossing my hair.