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Death By Peanut
   by Michele Bigley

Imani hates that hideous berry-smelling perfume her mother generously applies every time she uses the toilet. She despises her melodious voice as it explains into her cell phone her schedule for that day: Tae Bo, brunch at the Farmers Market with her agent, therapy. Imani can't stand how her mother manages to right every crooked painting, dented couch pillow, and curled up rug, but whisks past her daughter without bothering to say good morning. And, her mom has a bad weave. It's streaked with enough peroxide to kill an elephant, yet somehow is still able to retain that sun-bleached illusion on what was once a severely kinked fro. The razor sharp straightness of that hair doesn't even change anymore when it gets wet—it just hangs, limply. All shoulder length, no bangs, just a deep straight part, beginning at the tip of her nose and separated into two equal camps of yin and yang to protect her too-large ears. Now, Imani notices a slice of hair hanging too heavily over her mother's forehead as she reaches up, standing on her tiptoes to straighten the Basquiat. There was a time that she might have told her.
     On the phone, Rita informs someone who must be another mom how she is going to run for president of Chariot Hills PTA. How she is the best one for the job, how she will make Chariot Hills a high school to be reckoned with. The cafeteria will go organic, she promotes like the talent agent of a particularly obscure piece of fleshy peach. The other PTA mom must have said what Imani was thinking just then because Rita turns suddenly and sneers towards her daughter, "Well it's not my fault she got kicked out of Chariot, she shouldn't have ditched on class picture day."
     Imani looks at the years of dusty class pictures lined up in the oak cabinet. Third grade Imani with pink bows in her short poodle cut, front teeth missing as she smiles as if she just ate a bowl of Jelly Bellies. Next the Fifth Grade Pout, as her mother calls it, where her uncombed mop of nappy hair covers her eyes so all that is visible is her frown. The Dark Years of Junior High: black lipstick and braided hair with violet beads that used to click annoyingly on their frizzy ends. The desperate Mother Look of tenth grade, where her straight-permed hair is dyed an obscenely harsh red. And last year's. Black hair professionally pressed and woven with blond, her lips penciled in to look thicker, green contacts, and a half smile.
     "It's not my fault that's the only day of the year they take roll," Imani mutters.
     Her mother rearranges the knitted South Indian pillows on the forest green leather couch for the eighth time that morning. Then she crosses her thin arms across her Armani house sweater and whispers to the PTA mom about how George won't pay for Imani's education anymore. How she needs to go to school with the rejects to finally appreciate all that her mother and stepfather have done for her.
     "Oh, you know what I mean by rejects," her mother says.
     Through the line of bamboo that separates the formal part of the living room from the entertainment side, Imani receives her mother's hateful stare. "Continuation schools are where all the troublesome kids go that have gotten kicked out of regular school."
     Imani scoops the dry peanuts into her palm. Then smiles. She rubs the nuts over the back of her hand, enjoying the smooth hardness protected by the thin coat of skin. The morsels float across her fingers. Small pebbles of protein bathe her skin, hug her, make her feel liked. Warm even. Hopeful, even in the home where her mother coos over her stepbrother in ways she never does anymore with Imani. This is the only way out of it all. Away from her mother's dinner parties filled with Democrats and celebrities. Far from the how-to-strip-for-your-lover-at-home-classes, right here in this very game room, away from yoga gurus and Feng Shui advisors that pay their rent by telling her mother ways to find inner peace. What's the point of inner peace anyway?
     So Imani waits patiently for the rash to appear. She knows the habits of the bumps. They will light her chocolate skin on fire, burning just enough to feel like fire ants chomping on your skin. And the bumps will stay only bumps—that is as long as she doesn't toss one of the peanuts through her lipsticked lips, chew, and swallow. A peanut is the easiest way for her to commit suicide. First the bumps. Then she hyperventilates. Then she'd just die. Disappear from 14235 Bougainvillea Street. Away from the Palisades. Gone from LA. The Earth. All that would be left of her would live on in maggots. They could wear berets and paint the dark portraits of her mother's nude friends. They could go to the continuation school. They could deal with her mother.
     "Yeah Rita?" Imani smiles, wondering why her mother's lower jaw tends to jitter when she's perturbed. Or why when Rita's angered face matches her crimson hair, she looks more attractive than when she smears the MAC chalky foundation across her cappuccino skin. Rita throws the cell phone onto the oriental carpet and storms through the bamboo. She rips Imani's swelling hand from the bowl of peanuts. The bowl crashes to the ground, shattering. Rita draws in her breath and yanks hard on Imani's purplish arm, causing her to knock over the chair she was sitting on and fall headfirst to the ground.
     "If you break that Cambodian chair you have to pay for it!" Rita shouts.
     Imani doesn't have enough air in her lungs to inform her mother that she would never pay her $4000 for a chair that looks like pick up sticks tied together. Instead she tries to fashion herself into a seated position to loosen her mother's nails from digging into her swelling hand. But Rita begins tugging Imani towards the door in an attempt, Imani believes, to drag her across the floor like a child does its blanket. Imani holds her head up to avoid getting knocked out cold by her mother's bamboo braided dining room table at the same time that her shins slam against the corner of a caramel-colored wall.
     "Calm down," Imani wheezes at her mother.
     The hand-painted tile floors slap her hip. This time Imani screams, "You're going to ruin my new Diesel sweat suit!" She's tired of talking sense.
     "My daughter cares for no one but herself. Can't you see what I have to put up with?" Rita howls at the scowling African masks lining the hallway. Then she curses.
     The masks stare back, blankly, with the same sour expressions they always have. The mask with the blood red and shit-stained brown face, growls. Its eyes are blank and wide-open, and Imani wishes that she could grab that mask, the most grotesque one of her mother's grotesque collection, and disappear behind it.
     Her mother kicks open the downstairs bathroom door and tosses her, with a scrape and a thud, into the clawfoot tub and twists the handle on the showerhead. Coldness darts through Imani and she curls into fetal position, knocking her funny bone on the porcelain and not even having the energy to call out. Her sweat suit sticks to her legs and arms. She feels like white slushy snow that melts into ice. The kind that causes fatal accidents. The kind that makes whole cities look innocent, even if they are ugly at their very core.
     Her mother grabs her maroon-spotted hand and forces it under the waterfall. "Hold it there," she yells in her face. Imani smells the cigarette-tinged mango protein shake on her breath and does what she is told.
     Rita slams open the oak medicine cabinet and throws pill bottles onto the tiled floor. Imani turns her attention to her ballooning five fingers. She feels them throb like heartache and soak up each stinging tear of water that they can. Shaking. Exploding through the barriers of her skin. Her hand has a mind of it's own. Just like Imani. That hand wants to float away into another family. The hand wants to dance off into the sunset of normalcy with dogs and dinners, not a family where the daughter has to heat up frozen roasted duck with cherry reduction sauce to eat alone in her room with the cast of "Friends." That hand knows how to take care of business, Imani thinks proudly. Even though she is fairly disturbed that her hand ruined her new velvet sweat suit that she was planning on wearing to school that morning.
     "Oh you think this is funny? You think this is so funny!" Her mother's voice teeters on a tightrope. "One day I'm not going to be there to save you, or-or-or even better, I won't save you." Rita slams a bottle of Excedrin against the wall-to-wall mirror across from her, and lingers only for a second to gaze at her profile.
     "Is that a threat or a promise?" Imani's laugh stutters into something false and cruel. She really wants to laugh at her mother right now. Laugh at her ugliness that no amount of Calvin Klein can disguise. She wants each stab of her fake high-pitched wail to make her mother beg her to stop. She wants her mother on her knees, on the multicolored Mediterranean tiled floor in that very bathroom, praying for forgiveness for always insinuating that it was her fault that her daddy died.
     The Claritin bottle and anti-inflammatory medication that lands in Imani's wet lap stop the laughter. The bottles feel heavier this time. Though she is sure there aren't many pills left in each one. She glances up at her mother, looming over her, with her arms hugging her chest. Her thin lips quiver. Imani wipes the water from her eyes with her good hand, and searches for the laugh lines that once hugged her mother's gaunt cheeks.
     Imani slowly turns the knob to stop the tap dancing water. Shivering, though she doesn't necessarily feel the cold anymore, she twists the cap of the allergy medications and drops the two large pills into her hand, wishing that she'd have the guts to not take them this time. Her heart beats through her hand. She begins to wheeze. Her throat is closing. The lack of oxygen puts migraine pressure on her brain. Sweat rolls down her face even though she shakes with chills. Her heart catches. Stops beating. Imani feels her body tense. Death by peanut. She struggles to find her breath, punches at her chest with her swollen hand, beats at her imperfection and wishes, begs, that her mommy would save her. Just this once.
     But Imani drops the pills onto her tongue and swallows. Imani grabs a fluffy pink towel off the metal hanger above the tub. And, while Rita throws an asthma inhaler into the toilet and kicks a bottle of Robitussin against the wall, heaves a heavy grunt, and pounds her fist on the door, Imani ducks her head beneath the towel, not wanting her mother to see her hug herself, like usual.

Copyright©2003 Michele Bigley


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