In my eighth grade class was a beautiful and irritating girl. Marika looked like a tomboy version of Faye Dunaway, with one or two pimples. She was irritating because she had a crush on me at a time when I was too self-conscious to deal with that. She passed me notes which proclaimed her love but the class bully intercepted them and teased me and beat me up.
“You’re going to get me killed,” I told her.
“I can do what I want to,” she said.
My mother didn’t know about the bully and so she liked Marika.
“Who’s that beautiful girl?” she asked when she saw Marika at the school gates.
“She’s not beautiful,” I said. “That’s Marika.”
“That girl is beautiful,” my mother said with dramatic emphasis.
“She’s bony,” I said, “and she hangs around.”
“You might not see it yet,” my mother insisted, “but that’s only because you’re clueless and an idiot. One day you’ll see what I mean.”
I started looking at Marika with my mother’s trained eye. I could see what she meant. Marika was beautiful in the future. You’d have to save up to get to that.
“How come you get to decide that she’s beautiful,” I asked a few days later.
“Do you think she likes you?” my mother asked.
“No! But how come—”
She waved my question aside and lit a cigarette.
“If she likes you, you’d better pay attention.”
“When I met your father,” she said as she blew out the match, “I told grandma that I’d met my future husband. Do you know how I knew that?”
“What did grandma say?”
“She asked what his name was. Do you know how I knew?”
My mother leant across the table to make her point.
“Because he had no choice in the matter,” she said. “That’s how.”
She fetched an ashtray from the counter.
“Do I have fifty warts and a club foot?” she asked.
“Unless a woman has fifty warts and a club foot,” she declared, waving her cigarette around, “she can have whatever man she wants. It’s that simple. Once she makes up her mind, the man is lost. Only another woman can stop her.”
This was disturbing news.
“Why can’t men do that?” I asked.
My mother laughed.
“They can,” she said, “but it’s harder for them. Women aren’t hunters, like men are. They’re not as easy to trick.”
This was even more disturbing news. Marika didn’t have fifty warts and a club foot, and I was apparently a hunter.
“So I’d better watch it?” I asked.
“Maybe it’s already too late,” my mother said.
Now Marika looked nice in a dangerous kind of way. I watched her when she couldn’t see me. I thought a lot about the future, about my investment in her beauty, but I couldn’t get myself to love her. The down payment was impossible to make. I felt guilty and avoided her. She noticed and began to stalk our house. She cycled up and down our street and glared up our driveway.
“Don’t ride past my house,” I told her at school.
“I can ride where I want to,” she snapped.
“Someone will see you.”
“So what?” she said. “Like who?”
“Like my mother.”
“She wouldn’t know who I was.”
“She would,” I said. “She says stuff about you.”
Marika regarded me for a few seconds.
“I see,” she replied.
Her bicycle lay in the driveway when I got home that afternoon. She and my mother sat at the kitchen table, having tea. They stopped talking when I came through the back door.
“What’s going on here?” I demanded.
“We’re having tea,” my mother said. Then she added, more icily, “And a little talk.”
Marika gave me a withering look.
“About me?” I asked.
“No,” my mother laughed. “You’re not interesting enough to talk about.”
I sloped off to my room and slumped onto my bed. My mother was a traitor and a witch. I hated her, and I hated Marika.
After Marika left my mother came and sat on the edge of my bed.
“If you excluded your family,” she said at length, “people who have no choice but to love you, how many people will choose to love you in your lifetime?”
I was still angry.
“Go away,” I said.
“Maybe ten,” she said. “Maybe fewer than that.”
“Maybe a thousand,” I said.
She smiled and looked out the window.
“Whether it’s ten, or two,” she went on, “or three-hundred-and-four, you can know this—there will only be so many, and no more. There will be a first one, and there will be a last.”
I had always thought of my life as limitless despite knowing that I’d have to die. Now my mother had singled out this person who would be the last one to love me and it suddenly seemed very finite.
“Just the same,” she continued, “you’ll only choose to love someone else a few times in your life. We don’t get many turns in this game.”
“I can’t help it if Marika loves me,” I sulked.
“I know,” my mother said softly, “but be graceful about it. It’s an honour to be loved. Always.”
This was voodoo medicine. I felt terrible.
“What must I do?” I asked.
“Be kind,” she said. “That’s all.”
She got up to go.
“You said that a woman could have any man she wanted,” I said. “What about Marika? Why can’t she do that thing?”
My mother paused at the door.
“Remember how I said that only another woman could stop her?”
“I did,” she said and closed the door behind her.