I'm sitting at a Mobil station in Minneola, my feet propped up against the bottom frame of my car door. The door is swung open so I can take in the desert air, exhale my Camel Light into the breeze.
I just bought a pack of gum and a green plastic lighter inside the store, where a long-haired desert-baked clerk seemed at a loss to respond to me. At first glance, I was just another Sunday motorist heading back to Los Angeles from Vegas. But when he handed me my change, he noticed a face swollen and red from a stinging combination of crying and cheap sunscreen.
I've been on a downward spiral since Baker. The radio stations I scanned were playing country music and an oddly effecting version of Neil Diamond's "Coming to America."
I pulled off the 15, a freeway I've come to think of as my own personal "8 Mile," a long angst-filled stretch of asphalt -- on one side, in Vegas, is my mother; on the other is home.
I've traveled this road countless times, north to please my mother, south to recover from her.
This time, from Jean to Primm to Baker, I reviewed the facts of my case. It's simple, really. I could drive this road back and forth until my tires went bald. It is, as it always was, as it always will be, strained. Not just regular mother-daughter strained, Ingmar Bergman strained. The case unfolds thusly: my mother dislikes children, is the kind of woman who winces at a restaurant if a child is seated nearby, can't take the sound of them. Despite my best efforts, I was a child and taking care of me wasn't necessarily her pleasure. Make no mistake, the woman loved me, but she didn't like me until I was well over 18.
This, my friends, is just when I started to become intolerant of her, as daughters do of their mothers. Even the sloppiest of therapists could have picked up on this pathology. I could forgive her for raising me with all the maternal enthusiasm of Bobby Knight petting a sick kitten, but could I like her? Could I cruise down the road of resentment and finally reach the truck stop called acceptance?
Now, I love that woman more than anything on this planet. I'd take a bullet for that woman, but interacting with her generally makes me want to take a bullet anyway. That's just the way it is. I still tap dance for her approval and now she's dancing for mine and it's one big Riverdance of Shame. I ask myself the same question every time I hurl down this highway: Is this ever going to get easier?
It's a painful subject, this loving someone you don't always like. Last time I wrote about my mother, there were some violently angry letters. If you can't understand what I'm saying because you're too busy making waffles and memories with that Donna Reed you call mom, stop reading and give your mother a big hug. Lucky you. I'm crying on the side of a road you've never even seen.
I stop scribbling in my notebook, stub out my cigarette and head back into the station to use the bathroom. As I wait in line, I look out the window, watching tiny black desert birds scamper across the concrete.
Three biker guys stride toward the Mobil, scaring the birds away. One gets in line behind me, wearing a leather vest. His big bicep is at my eye level and bears the cursive tattoo, "Lacy."
"Aren't you on that show?" he asks.
"Yes," I answer.
"You must be tired," he adds, registering my blotchy face. "Hey, she's from that show." He tells his buddy. "Channel 52 -- I only watch 'cause of her."
If you can simultaneously be flattered in one part of yourself and cracking in another, I am. He asks me to sign the back of his gas receipt and I write, "Dear Jack, Thanks for watching! Have a safe trip home."
I pose with Jack so his buddy can snap our picture with a disposable camera. I feel a patch of leather brush against my skin. I have the vague notion that I will run off with Jack to Lodi or Pittsburgh or Redlands or wherever he's from. As the camera flashes, I picture Jack taking care of me, taut Lacy muscle threatening anyone who bothers me. I see myself in his living room, lounging on his worn Sears furniture sipping a beer, not a care in the world. I am lusting after my own vanishing. But there is probably a Lacy. Why else would a Harley guy know me from a TV decorating show? And what would Jack and I talk about when the novelty wore off? It wasn't going to work.
"Nice to meet you," I say, and make a point of shaking his big, tan hand because I know he will like this, and take the story home with his scrawled receipt.
I smile my big Marilyn Monroe-entertaining-the-troops smile and feel the hole in me bigger in comparison with how I must seem to Jack.
I get back on the road. I head toward Yermo, scan the radio for the right sad song so I can do all I know how to do, cry it out, keep going. Every mile takes me closer to home, and farther from it. I grab a T-shirt from the passenger seat, use it to wipe the sweat off the back of my neck. I settle on a radio station. A voice that's part Jack, part Jack Daniels sings to me through the static, "I'm tired of spinning my wheels...."
Teresa Strasser can be seen Fridays 8-10 p.m. and weekdays at 5 p.m. on TLC's "While You Were Out" and is on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com.