Chicken Skin by M.J. Rose

Make yourself another appointment. Thursdays are no good. Any day but Thursday.” Denise lights another cigarette and wipes a blob of mascara from the corner of her eye with her pinkie.

I look out the car window at the signs blurring by. Red. They say fast food signs are always red because it makes you hungry. It’s true. McDonald’s, Wendy’s, KFC. Red, red, red.

“Well?” she slaps my thigh smartly. “You gonna call or do I need to do it for you?”

“Yes, mom, God, I’ll call.” Maybe the call will be the worst part. Calls are always painful. You can hear judgment in people’s voices and it wrenches at me. It’s almost as bad as going someplace and dealing with some person face to face. The only plus is that you can hang up if you need to.

“Oh, quit it with your moping. So hard to be Sandra. So hard when you’ve got a roof over your head and plenty to eat.” She gives me a pointed look out of the corner of her eye. “Too much.” Then she blows smoke out of the side of her mouth, away from me. She always does this, like the distance between me and lung cancer is a meaningful two and a half feet. “Well? You going to ask me?”

“What?”

“It’s not free, you know.” She laughs. “No, nothing is free.”

“It is at Planned Parenthood. If you’re under 18.”

“No.” She shakes her head, and the sour scent of peroxide wafts over to me from her feathery cascade of freshly bleached hair. “Nothing is free,” she emphasises.

I pull my own hair back into a tight ponytail. If I leave it down, the smoke will stick so bad I’ll smell like her for a week. My hair is so obnoxiously thick that once the smell of cigarettes (or fried chicken, or gasoline) gets in, ten washings won’t get it out.

“You want KFC?” She asks after she’s already pulled into the drive through line.

“Sure. Whatever.”

“I’m sick of McDonald’s. No more burgers. That garbage goes straight to your thighs. Chicken from now on.”

I’m pretty sure KFC isn’t exactly health food, but arguing doesn’t do any good. It’s best to just keep my mouth shut when we have to spend time together.

“What about your father?” she says, too casually, studying the drive through menu.

“He’d just worry. You know Dad.”

She laughs her grating laugh again. “Oh yeah. Yeah, I know your father, alright. More’s the pity.” She looks at me sideways. “He taking care of you? He feeding you?” She answers her own question. “Yeah, obviously he’s feeding you.” She gets to the point. “He never touched you, did he, that sick bastard?”

“Ew. God, no. He’s not a horrible person just because he hates you.” I feel bad immediately after saying it, but I can’t stand her. I can’t stand being near her. Sitting in the same car makes me want to tear my hair out of my head, one strand at a time, just so I have a distraction from the painful awkwardness of being trapped in a container with this woman.

“I’m your mother,” she says, suddenly saintly. “A mother has to ask.” I bite my tongue, but I’d like to say she’s nothing to me but an inconvenience. An embarrassment.

She opens the bucket of chicken as we pull out of the parking lot, and I pull my ponytail even tighter. I always stink after a visit with Denise. I stink like her. I hate that.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, with your moping. Cut it out,” she snaps. Then her voice softens slightly, as she gnaws a greasy drumstick. “You know, everyone was doing it when I was your age.” The smell is making me nauseous, but I don’t roll down the window. How pissed would she be if I barfed in her car?

Then she adds, “Everyone but me anyways.”

“Jesus Christ, Denise!” I punch the armrest. “Will you shut up?”

“All’s I’m saying is, if you’re having second thoughts, ignore them. You got to nip that nonsense in the bud.”

For some reason, this language really irritates me. “You don’t get a say,” I remind her. “I can change my mind any time.”

For the first time, she looks genuinely concerned. She places a greasy hand on my leg. “Oh, honey, don’t. Don’t do that to yourself.”

I recoil at her touch. “That’s my decision, not yours.”

She removes her hand and hardens up again. “Uh huh. Yeah, that’s your decision all right. You think your father’s gonna pay for another hungry mouth? No way, missy. You’ll be out on your butt before you know what happened. And then what? You think you’re gonna come live with me? Fat chance.” She slurps down a skin, tough and elastic, hard to bite through. “Fat chance,” she repeats. She takes a sip of watery cola.

“I’m not saying this to hurt your feelings, so don’t get all up in my face.” I brace myself for whatever horrible thing she’s going to say next. “But I really wish I had someone to talk sense into me when I was your age.”

“You wish you had someone to talk you into aborting me. That’s what you’re actually saying to my face?” I’m so numb from her crap that it doesn’t even hurt. Well, it mostly doesn’t. Part of me stings every time she disappoints me. It’s not like I ever expect her to be a good person. But there’s still those little pinpricks of pain every time she says or does something like this.

“Not you specifically,” she says in an injured tone.

“Then who?”

“Well. You know. It wasn’t you back then, was it? You’re not you ’til way, way after you’re born. Actually, you’re still probably not you. You got a lot of growing up to do, missy.”

“Mother of the year,” I mutter under my breath. I’m pretty sure she hears me but doesn’t respond.

“You know what your odds are, right? That any baby you have will be like you.”

“I don’t care about that.”

“It’s genetic,” she says. “Whatever you read, it is.”

I’ve never hated her more. “I’m pretty sure there are worse things you can be than sad. Or manic.”

She gives me the coldest look. “Take it from a mother. There isn’t.”

I’m not afraid of having a daughter like me. I’m afraid of being a mother like her. This woman who pecked at me, my whole life, plucking me bare, telling me how deficient, how defective I am, and then finally giving me up. I pray that when the time comes, I will be what she hasn’t figured out how to be in almost eighteen years. She slows for a red light and rolls to a stop. Cradling her words heavily, I open the car door and leave her behind.

M.J. Rose

M.J. Rose

M.J. Rose is a writer, activist, and mental health self-advocate from New York. Her fiction, poetry, and academic work have appeared in various publications including Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Poetry Pacific, Cinnabar, and many others. She is currently working on her first novel and is very pleased to be contributing to Inside the Bell Jar.
M.J. Rose

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