Two days before I entered high school, my mother took me to see all of the men she had ever slept with.
“Why are we doing this?” I asked, buckling myself into the truck, but my mother didn’t answer.
Instead, she unfolded a pair of white-rimmed sunglasses, tucked the ends into the wild nest of her hair, and let them rest them on her forehead. Even in Dad’s pick-up littered with dog hair and sawdust, she looked glamorous. “I told your dad we’d be back by four. No time to waste.” She looked over while revving the engine. Her eyebrows arched into a shape that, even to this day, I have not been able to imitate.
“Right,” I said.
“This is going to change your life.” She tapped the sunglasses down to her nose. “I suggest you get with the program.”
My parents had both attended the high school I was entering, but they didn’t fall in love until years later when they locked eyes at a line dance. I’ve asked my father about his life beforehand—before my mother and that dance—but he has nothing to say. No stories to tell. Like he didn’t exist until that moment.
As the pick-up gained speed on the open road, my mother and I sped past fields full of drooping Queen Anne’s lace and milkweed nearly turned to fluff.
We stopped first at Swidell’s Taxidermy. “Terry Swidell,” she told me in the parking lot. “First boyfriend. Total loser.”
Instead of walking to the front door, I followed my mother to the square window on the side of the building. We lifted our noses to the edge of the glass. Though the lighting inside the shop was dim, I could make out several squirrels arranged on a shelf against the back wall.
“We’re not going in?” I asked.
“Of course not,” she said. “How would we explain this?” A dozen white-tailed bucks stared at me from different spots on the wall, their antlers curved upward like shrugging arms.
“There he is,” my mother whispered and Terry entered the room through a door in the back. He was short, stocky, carrying a fish. He lifted it high above his head, assessing its position on the wall, and held it there for several seconds. From the side, his teeth looked like kernels of sweet corn beneath his nose.
“Terry always used the word critters,” my mother said. “Just look at him.” She guided me back to the truck with an arm on my elbow.
The next stop was Vince Bowden’s Auto Repair. “Vince once proposed to me,” my mother explained, “in his grandfather’s sugar shack.”
The auto shop was closed, but Vince’s house was only ten yards away. We tip-toed across his junk-laden yard, threading through rusted cars on cinderblocks and the hollowed-out carcass of an old gray van. Through his window, I saw Vince—barefoot in his kitchen, chopping something with a knife. His beard looked uncombed. In the living room behind him, two kids in dirty sweatshirts sat on a couch, watching TV.
“This here,” said my mother, “this could have been my life.” She shuddered, but a smile teased at the corner of her mouth.
“I have no idea why we’re doing this,” I repeated.
“You will,” she said.
The tour took all afternoon. We drove downtown to peek over Wesley Hill’s clapboard fence, and then to the Best Western, where I watched Martin Beauford tend bar through the leaves of a potted plant. None of the men looked as bad as my mother made them out to be. They were just men—some smiling, some with five o’clock shadows, some with mysterious stains running down the sides of their shirts, but all decent-looking men. All men who had lived in our town for years, but had not existed before my mother.
“Tony Dalton,” she said on Main Street, pointing at a man waving a cardboard sign by the side of the road. Your choice of pizza toppings for 99¢! “Only once, but it still counts.”
“Roger, too,” she said, nodding to the man pumping gas at the Citgo. “Oh, and Vinny! Right there. With the eagle tattoos. Coworkers—what are the odds?”
“Mom,” I finally said. “You didn’t sleep with all of these men.”
“I did,” she answered.
“That’s impossible,” I told her.
“Look, I hope you’re getting the point here,” my mother said. She turned the radio down and looked at me through her gorgeous, reflective sunglasses. “You don’t want to be the kind of girl I was. That’s the point.” For a second, I thought she was about to cry. Then the moment passed. She just reached out and cupped her hand around the back of my head. I felt her fingers press against my hair, which was nothing like a wild nest, and I thought of all the men on Main Street. In our town. In the world. I didn’t have what it took to bring one into existence, even if I wanted to.
“Let’s get home,” my mother said then. She removed her hand from my head and put her foot on the pedal. “Your dad’ll be waiting.”
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