MOTHER'S PEARLS

OLIVIA GONDEK

"The idea for "Mother's Pearls" came to me after attending a friend's sweet sixteen. At one point during the lunch, the girl across from my had to talk to the waiter because there was something wrong with her food. Something about the way she talked and held herself reminded me of the way women carry themselves at adult functions, that kind of hollowed small talk reminiscent of PTA moms chatting with one another. I couldn't explain it, but watching such a young girl adopt such older mannersims made me so sad. "Mother's Pearls", at its core, is a story about all the ways young girls rush to grow up, but in doing so, create an isolated life that has them stashing away their fears and sadness, too polite to discuss them with anyone else."

She didn’t want to eat the last slice of garlic bread because she thought it would make her
fat. Her hand hovered over the buttered crust and its golden center, and I could see in her eyes
that she was afraid. It was a hereditary fear, passed down by her mother, her mother’s mother,
and probably a stray man who once made an unfortunate comment to a distant aunt, and now the
man’s voice lived in the heads of them all. The girl’s hand trembled over the plate but didn’t
move. It made me sad to see that her smile never slipped.


The girl beside her was sad too. She was fatter than the other girls at the table. She wore
big hoop earrings, chunky resin rings, and a long skirt that billowed around her swollen ankles.
She barely ate and spoke even less, only listened to the throb of noises around her. Her face held
the passive expression of boredom, of wanting to be somewhere else, but every punchline
brought on a pained laugh, always a beat too late, because she found herself on the outskirts of
every conversation.


It was a hideously bright afternoon. Still, the restaurant had on all of its lights. The bulbs
seared the tops of our heads until we burned. We pointed at the painted ceiling and the velvet
drapes with a shared obsession. We prayed that no one could smell our charred skin. We asked
for more water so that our fingers, damp with condensation, could provide secret relief as we
played with our hair.


We wore our finest dresses for the occasion: a birthday lunch; a sweet sixteen. Families
watched us from behind their meals. I crawled inside their skulls, gouged out their eyes with my
painted fingernails, and saw us from their perspective. High heels shuffled unnaturally after we
took steps. Laughter was smothered by soft fingertips pressed to mouths dyed from stolen
lipsticks. We smiled in a way that reminded our fathers of their wives. We walked with an
emphasis on our newly expanded hips, leaned forward so that our dresses exposed the soft skin
of our still-tender breasts. We winked at the young male servers, watched them squirm at their
perverse longing to touch us in private.


A doll at the table looked like me, had my eyes, but was hollow. Her heart beat out of
obligation.


Thump. Thump. Thump.


A girl across from me found an issue with her pasta. She waved down our waiter and
pointed to her dish with pity. Oh, I hate to cause such trouble...possibly bring me a new plate...I
would greatly appreciate it. While she spoke, her hand drifted subconsciously to her collar bone
where a pearl necklace freckled with age rested uncomfortably on the small but similar neck. She
rolled the beads in her fingers as she talked. The necklace was heavier than she had expected.
Throughout the lunch, she found herself tilting forward under its weight if she lost focus. The
beads skimmed the rim of her plate. Its chime was an alarm, a sign of her mistake, and we all
turned to watch her. Shoulders back, chin up, necklace readjusted. The dish cleared, a new one
brought out. Gratitude delivered, lines memorized and rehearsed.


I saw the girl 30 years from now wearing the same pearl necklace and treating her waiters
with the same practiced kindness. I felt sad knowing that life would not change for her. That she
had trained for something so easily mastered. That she had prematurely become the hollowed
woman she’d been destined for since birth; the skin of a woman that hung in the backs of all our
closets.


I crawled back inside the heads of the families and saw us again from their eyes. This
time we were middle-aged. We had the beginnings of wrinkles, the stale rot of burning in silence
for years, but our behavior remained unchanged. The kind small talk. The gentle manners. The
empty compliments that come with such gatherings, a painful Oh, you look so beautiful!, coupled
with a sincere clutch of limp hands that flitted around the table. I could see it all so vividly
because it sat in front of me, and at my sides. The traces of our mothers, and our mother’s
mothers, resting against our collar bones with the weight of their voices handed down like family
heirlooms. We tilted forward, unable to catch ourselves, unless we focused and shut out the fear
and sadness that we rolled, like freckled pearls, in between our fingers. It was manners, kindness,
rehearsals. It was loneliness in mass excess.


Leftovers slumped into to-go boxes. Plates cried as we stacked them together. Satisfied
sighs hung heavy from our mouths and belied our numb hunger.
The girl’s hand no longer hovered over the garlic bread. It was tangled around her throat,
latched onto her pearl necklace as its beads bruised her skin. Her face turned purple, then blue.
She thrashed in her seat, but the necklace tightened around her airway. She strained against the
chokehold. She pleaded for the other girls to help. No one could hear her. The rustle of tissue
paper, the hum of our whispers, and the collective beat of our obligatory hearts drowned out the
thumping of her legs against the chair.


Thump. Thump. Thump.


The fatter girl had the last slice of garlic bread and laughed a second too late.

author's corner

OLIVIA GONDEK

is a 16-year-old high school junior from Virginia. She enjoys Shirley Jackson novels and drinking hot tea in warm weather. Her work is forthcoming in Polyphony Lit.