A Greek chorus of churchgoers known as the Mothers opens by saying, “We didn’t believe when we first heard because you know how church folk can gossip.” They note that secrets quickly get out of control in their community, referencing the time that Betty, the pastor’s secretary, witnessed the church’s head usher having brunch with an unknown young woman. Betty quickly spread the news to everybody in the congregation, attracting suspicions of all kinds until the usher appeared at Upper Room (the church) that Sunday and introduced the woman in question as his great niece. Now, though, a new rumor is afoot, and the Mothers think it feels “different.”
By foregrounding The Mothers with a story about the rapid spread of gossip in the Upper Room community, Bennett prepares readers for a tale that hinges upon secrecy and the dispersal of sensitive information. Interestingly enough, the Mothers don’t believe this secret (which Bennett has yet to reveal) when they first hear it, acknowledging that “church folk can gossip.” This is strange, as the Mothers are themselves “church folk” and seem to be active participants in Upper Room’s whisper networks—a fact that suggests that even people who look down upon salacious gossip can’t resist playing a part in the circulation of particularly juicy secrets.
“All good secrets have a taste before you tell them,” the Mothers say, asserting that they wish they took a moment to consider the taste of this new rumor before repeating it. Unfortunately, though, they don’t do this, instead sharing “this sour secret, a secret that [begins] in the spring Nadia Turner [gets] knocked up by the pastor’s son and [goes] to the abortion clinic downtown to take care of it.” They explain that Nadia is seventeen when this happens, and that she’s living with her father, Robert, but not with her mother, Elise, because Elise committed suicide six months ago. Since this tragedy, Nadia has “earned a wild reputation,” and everybody in Upper Room has heard about her “sojourns across the boarder to dance clubs in Tijuana” and her late nights spent flirting with strapping young Marines.
Bennett has already established how secrets can run rampant through the Upper Room community, and now she demonstrates this by using the story of Nadia’s abortion and linking it to the reputation the young woman “earn[s]” in the wake of her mother’s suicide. As the people talk more and more about Nadia, Bennett shows how unforgiving the community is when it comes to Nadia’s behavior—rather than reaching out to help Nadia, the adults around her simply gossip about her and decide that she is “wild,” boxing her into the stereotype of an untethered, irresponsible girl. As such, they turn their back on her rather than providing her with the attention and support she needs.
The Mothers admit that all of the stories they’ve heard about Nadia might not be true, but they know one thing for sure: Nadia Turner spends “her senior year of high school rolling around in bed with Luke Sheppard,” and when the springtime rolls around, she’s pregnant with his baby.
It’s worth noting that the Mothers are self-aware enough to admit that not everything they’ve heard about Nadia is necessarily true. Despite this, though, they seem to have no hesitation in spreading such stories, illustrating how gossip can be irresistible, even when it’s inaccurate.
Shortly after Elise Turner killed herself, Nadia started skipping school and riding busses through San Diego, getting off wherever they took her. On occasion, she journeyed to the Marine Corps base, where she flirted with recruits, sometimes kissing them until doing so made her want to cry. She rode these buses as a way of escaping her “old life” at school, where she used to have hordes of friends and a support network of teachers. After her mother’s suicide, she’s surprised when she thinks back on “how rarely she [was] alone” in those days leading up the tragedy. “Her days felt like being handed from person to person like a baton, her calculus teacher passing her to her Spanish teacher to her chemistry teacher to her friends and back home to her parents,” Bennett writes. “Then one day, her mother’s hand was gone and she’d fallen, clattering to the floor.”
In this moment, Bennett asks who should be held responsible for taking care of a seventeen-year-old “wild” girl when her own mother has decided to shirk her own parental duties by killing herself. The fact that Nadia feels like a “baton” that has gone “clattering to the floor” suggests that the various support networks in her life have dropped away in tandem with her mother’s sudden disappearance. Bennett implies that mothers in Nadia’s community are integral to such support networks, so if Nadia’s mother won’t care for her, nobody will.
Now, after her mother’s suicide, Nadia hates being around people at school—her teachers are too forgiving and tentative around her, and her friends no longer tell jokes when she sits with them at lunch, “as if their happiness [is] offensive to her.” When she has to choose a partner one day in AP Government, her friends avoid pairing up with her, forcing her to work with Aubrey Evans, a highly devoted Christian who wears a purity ring. Nadia thinks Aubrey is “probably the poor holy child of devout atheists” and is overcompensating for her parentage by committing herself so vigorously to religion. As they start working together, Aubrey leans close and says, “I just wanted to say I’m sorry. We’ve all been praying for you.” Although this sentiment is “sincere,” Nadia disregards it, since she hasn’t been to church since her mother’s funeral.
The people at Nadia’s school used to be a major part of her life, but now Nadia doesn’t want to be around them because it’s clear they can offer her nothing in the way of support. Instead, they treat her too tentatively, forcing her to adhere to the identity of a fragile, sad girl who can’t even stomach her friends’ “happiness.” In this way, she’s alienated from her most familiar community. In addition, when Aubrey Evans extends her religious kindness, Nadia finds herself isolated once again, since religion has never been something she’s turned to in times of need—as such, Aubrey’s sentiment is lost on her, making her feel all the more alone.
One day, Nadia skips school and goes to the Hanky Panky, a local strip club. Even though she looks “like a kid with her backpack,” the bouncer lets her into the dark club, a place where “you could be alone with your grief.” Nadia likes this privacy, which contrasts with how her father has been coping with hardship. Robert has thrown himself into the church, attending both Sunday services each week, going to Bible study on Wednesday nights, and even showing up at the Thursday night choir practices despite the fact that he doesn’t sing. “Her father propped his sadness on a pew,” Bennett notes, “but [Nadia] put her sad in places no one could see.”
This is the first acknowledgement in The Mothers of how Nadia deals with her “sadness.” Bennett makes it clear that Nadia copes with her mother’s death internally, as she grapples with her grief in “places no one [can] see.” While Nadia internalizes her pain, Robert externalizes his by “propp[ing]” it “on a pew,” though it’s worth noting that the effect of this externalization isn’t that he is open about his grief with his daughter. His fervent need to express his pain by constantly helping the church actually cuts him off from having to confront his emotions or talk to his daughter about what he’s feeling. In this way, he both internalizes and externalizes his trauma.
Sitting in a lowly lit corner with a drink she bought with her fake ID, Nadia watches the dancers onstage, whose bodies are “stretched and pitted from age.” Visiting the Hanky Panky becomes a habit, and on her third time at the club, an old man sits down and flirts with her until a middle-aged black stripper shoos him away. The stripper tells Nadia to follow her outside, dumping the young girl’s drink down the sink on her way. Lighting a cigarette, the stripper asks Nadia if she is a runaway, commenting on her pretty eyes and saying she could get a job stripping if she wanted to, since the owner doesn’t mind letting underage girls on the floor. Nadia says she doesn’t want to dance, and the stripper replies, “Well, I don’t know what you’re looking for but you ain’t gonna find it here.”
When Nadia goes to the strip club, it’s fair to say that she’s testing herself by seeing how far she’ll go in the direction of becoming the “wild” girl her community already thinks she is. Perhaps because she internalizes her pain, misbehaving and breaking rules is a way of expressing her grief, an acknowledgement that something in her life isn’t right. However, she’s really only flirting with this rebellious persona, so when the stripper asks Nadia if she wants to become a dancer herself, she refuses.
The stripper gives Nadia several dollars and tells her to go to Fat Charlie’s seafood restaurant, where she encounters Luke Sheppard, the son of Upper Room’s pastor. Luke waits tables at Fat Charlie’s now, though Nadia still remembers him from her days in Sunday school. Several years her senior, Luke has already been through two years of college on a football scholarship, though his athletic career ended (along with his academic career) when he broke his leg in a game during his sophomore year, the bone cracking so severely that it burst through his skin. As a result, he walks with a limp, which makes Nadia “want him” even more. “Her mother had died a month ago and she was drawn to anyone who wore their pain outwardly, the way she couldn’t,” Bennett writes.
Bennett confirms in this scene that, although she hides her grief “in places no one [can] see,” Nadia yearns to outwardly express her emotions. Unfortunately, this is a seemingly impossible task for her, so she’s drawn to Luke, who literally embodies the way pain can manifest itself physically. Unlike Nadia, Luke wears his “pain outwardly.” Even Robert, who Bennett says “prop[s] his sadness on a pew,” doesn’t express his pain as outwardly as Luke. That Nadia takes such prominent note of Luke’s physical appearance is important to remember, since Bennett has already revealed that Nadia will eventually get an abortion—a procedure that stops her body from growing in ways she wouldn’t be able to hide.
In keeping with her attraction to Luke’s outward display of pain, Nadia thinks that “an inside hurt [is] supposed to stay inside.” In fact, she didn’t even cry at her mother’s funeral, literally supporting her father at one point while he broke down in tears. At Fat Charlie’s, Luke flirts with Nadia, telling her which items on the menu are the most disgusting. When she tries to order a drink with her fake ID, he merely laughs at her, saying, “Aren’t you, like, twelve?” “I’m seventeen,” she says defensively, but she knows this makes no difference, considering that Luke is twenty-one and knows all about adult life.
Once again, Bennett shows how attuned Nadia is to the ways in which people display or hide their pain. As somebody who buries her grief inside, Nadia is mortified by the idea of expressing her emotions externally—an important dynamic to keep in mind as she ventures toward pregnancy. In addition, since she doesn’t want her external appearance to reveal anything about her internal world, it makes sense that she tries to trick Luke into thinking she’s older than she is; this is part of the identity she’s trying to build for herself in the world, one that masks with who she actually is (a teenager who is grief-stricken by her mother’s death).
Despite their age difference, Nadia and Luke get along quite well, and Nadia begins paying him frequent visits at Fat Charlie’s. As she sits in the booths with textbooks spread over the table, he teases her for being a “nerd”—something even her mother used to make fun of her for, since she has always been disarmingly smart. “See this girl,” Luke sometimes says to passing waiters, “first black lady president, just watch.” And although “every black girl who [is] even slightly gifted [is] told this,” Nadia enjoys hearing Luke brag about her intelligence. “He didn’t treat her like everyone at school,” Bennett adds, “who either sidestepped her or spoke to her like she was some fragile thing one harsh word away from breaking.”
When Bennett notes that all intelligent black girls are told they’ll be the “first black lady president,” she illustrates how eager society is to categorize people into recognizable identities. She suggests that it’s easier for people to wrap their heads around black female intelligence if they conceive of this intelligence as remarkable and extraordinary. When Luke calls Nadia a “nerd,” he fits her into a framework he can more readily understand, since he otherwise wouldn’t know what to make of Nadia, who is simultaneously a high-achieving student and a girl who plays hooky to sneak into strip clubs and drink liquor with a fake ID.
One night that winter, Nadia’s father goes out of town, so she invites Luke to her house. She wants to offer him a drink, since this is what “women [do] in movies,” but there isn’t any liquor in her house. Besides, Luke wastes no time pinning her to the wall and kissing her passionately. After she and Luke make their way to the bedroom, Nadia has sex for the first time, enduring through the pain even as Luke asks her three separate times if she wants to stop. In response, she tells him to keep going, accepting and even embracing the fact that sex hurts, resolving to make Luke “her outside hurt.”
In this moment, Nadia’s attraction to Luke’s externalized pain comes to a head, as she tries to make him “her outside hurt.” What’s interesting is how cognizant Nadia is of her own tendency to bottle up her emotions. Whereas many people who repress their grief might not admit to themselves that they’re internalizing such problematic thoughts and emotions, Nadia remains self-aware enough to understand that she’s partly drawn to Luke because of the outward way he handles hardship. In this way, readers see that Nadia is a character of great complexity, as she embraces the contradictions inherent to her own identity.
Nadia and Luke keep seeing each other privately throughout the rest of the winter and into the spring, at which point Nadia discovers she’s pregnant. At first, all Luke can say is, “Fuck.” Then he asks her if she’s “sure.” She assures him that she’s absolutely positive, since she went to a free pregnancy center that morning. At this center, which is outside of town, a nurse asked Nadia if she had a particular reason to think she might be pregnant, and Bennett notes that this woman “must’ve thought Nadia was an idiot—another black girl too dumb to insist on a condom.”
Once again, Bennett shows the ways in which people project unfortunate race-related stereotypes onto Nadia. When the nurse at the pregnancy clinic treats her like a “black girl too dumb to insist on a condom,” the nurse makes assumptions about Nadia’s intelligence and associates her recklessness with her race, as if black girls are categorically “dumb” when it comes to using condoms. In turn, the nurse superimposes a narrative onto Nadia’s identity, ultimately flattening her many complexities.
Despite what the nurse at the pregnancy center might think, Nadia and Luke did use condoms, “at least most times”—a caveat that Nadia now feels embarrassed about. “She was supposed to be the smart one,” Bennett notes. “She was supposed to understand that it only took one mistake and her future could be ripped away from her.” Sitting across from Luke after revealing that she’s pregnant, Nadia tells him she can’t keep the child. After all, she has just been accepted to the University of Michigan and thus feels like she can’t “let this baby nail her life in place.” After a moment, Luke says, “Okay, okay. Tell me what to do,” asking how much money Nadia needs for an abortion. When he asks if she’d like him to accompany her to the clinic, she tells him to simply pick her up when the procedure is over.
In this scene, Bennett shows how Nadia takes cues from society regarding how she’s “supposed to” behave. Indeed, she feels like it is her duty to be the “smart” one in her relationship with Luke, especially when it comes to pregnancy. This attitude implies that women are the only ones who have to consider the consequences of having unprotected sex, ignoring the fact that men should also be expected to take responsibility for their actions. When Luke asks Nadia to tell him “what to do,” he recognizes that what they do next should be Nadia’s choice, since she is the one who’s pregnant. At the same time, though, he also removes himself from the difficult decision-making process that accompanies unplanned pregnancies, thereby leaving Nadia with the full burden of making a difficult choice.
Nadia takes the bus to the abortion clinic on the morning of her appointment and sits in the lobby with several other young women. Looking at a vase made of seashells, she thinks about how her mother loved to collect shells, saying that doing so calmed her. Nadia’s memory is interrupted when a “black nurse with graying dreadlocks” calls her name and tells her she should have worn more comfortable clothes. “I am comfortable,” Nadia says, feeling “thirteen again,” as if she’s “standing in the vice-principal’s office” and arguing about the dress code. But the dreadlocked nurse just shakes her head, seeming “weary, unlike the chipper white nurses.” As they move down the hall, Nadia feels this nurse judging her, thinking she’s “just another black girl who [has] found herself in trouble and [is] finding her way out of it.”
Feeling judged by the dreadlocked nurse, Nadia experiences the ways in which her own blackness informs the way people treat her. Feeling like “just another black girl,” she senses that the nurse is lumping her into a certain category of people—in other words, the nurse associates her with a negative stereotype regarding young black women and the frequency with which they get abortions. Of course, the nurse herself is black, which may also be why she appears extra cognizant of Nadia’s race—after all, the nurse has most likely experienced bigotry and stereotyping, and thus is especially unforgiving when other black women find themselves in the kind of “trouble” that unfortunately propagates racist stereotypes and narratives.
Nadia tells the technician in the sonogram room that she doesn’t want to see the screen. Determined not to “allow herself to love the baby or even know him,” she turns her head away. “Huh,” the technician says, stopping for a moment with the sensor on her stomach. “What? What happened?” Nadia asks, whipping her head around, hoping that maybe—just maybe—she isn’t actually pregnant. When she looks at the screen, though, she sees “a black oval punctuated by a single white splotch,” and the technician simply remarks that her womb is a perfect sphere.
Nadia worries that seeing the baby on the sonogram machine will destroy her resolve to forge forward as an independent woman, instead convincing her to cancel the abortion and take on the caretaking responsibilities that come with motherhood. When the technician tells Nadia that her womb is a perfect sphere, it’s as if nature itself is tempting Nadia, saying she’s literally made for childbearing. This moment, along with the Upper Room community’s disapproval of abortion, makes it even harder for her to continue on as planned, requiring even more resolve.
After the sonogram, Nadia goes to the operating room, where the dreadlocked nurse tells her that the procedure will only take ten minutes. Afterward, she waits in the lobby for Luke, but he never arrives. An hour later, as Nadia starts to dial Luke for the third time, the dreadlocked nurse brings her crackers and a juice box, urging her to eat to soothe her stomach cramps, which will persist rather uncomfortably for “a while.” Nadia tries to refuse the food, insisting that Luke will arrive soon and take her home. “He’s not coming, baby,” the nurse says, and Nadia is alarmed by her use of the word “baby”—almost as alarmed as the nurse was when, upon waking up from the anesthesia, Nadia looked into the nurse’s eyes and said, “Mommy?”
Bennett explores the expectations and responsibilities that come with caretaking by showing how Luke fails to take care of Nadia in neglecting to pick her up. Considering that he’s the one who got her pregnant in the first place, picking her up would be the least he could do, and yet he doesn’t even manage to fulfill this duty. Bennett also highlights the expectations that come with parental caretaking. When Nadia wakes up and calls the nurse “Mommy,” readers not only understand that Nadia is looking for people to fill Elise’s absence, but are also reminded that Nadia is quite young—a mere teenager yearning for a motherly presence to help her through this difficult time. Nadia subconsciously longs for and expects to have a motherly figure in her life, and momentarily mistakes the nurse for somebody who might take up this role.