This is what my mother’s midlife crisis looks like: She’s on a stage at the Cross County Mall in West Palm, black wig nesting her head, black leotard hidden beneath a black-and-white checkered faux fur. I’ve drawn a tattoo on her left arm with a ballpoint pen while she’s thickened her lips with a red pencil. Around her neck hangs a plastic cross made to look metal. She teeters on five-inch heels and puckers her lips just like Cher. I don’t remember my mother’s contestant number. It doesn’t really matter.

Her first gig is actually a contest, a lip-sync contest, and somehow she’s convinced me to join the act. Even at twenty I still fear her. Perhaps that’s why I said yes; or perhaps it was because I want her to buy me a car when I graduate college. Thankfully I’m too old, this being my junior year, to be Sonny to her Cher. So here I am, dressed like Popeye, without the muscles and pipe and can of spinach to make me ultra powerful just when I need it most.

The top prize is one hundred dollars and a gold-plated trophy with the outline of a singer glued to the top. My mother is sandwiched between a “performance” by Neil Diamond and one by Willie Nelson. She makes some lewd remark about being “sandwiched” and a threesome. I recoil and hand the stagehand an unmarked cassette tape. The music: If I could turn back time. If I could find a way. I’d take back all the words that hurt you, and you’d stay. My mother begins strutting around the stage like a grayscale flamingo. She’s actually good. She looks like Cher, with her high cheekbones. She moves like Cher, crisscrossing her legs as she paces the stage and plays to the crowd. I’m mildly proud, and for a moment I forget that I’m due to join her. Then, as the music comes up, my mother’s clothes come off. Cheers muffle any gasps. My mother’s legs are fishnet; her top transparent. She begins skipping. That’s my cue—to run, I think. But with my mother, there’s no turning back.

I stumble on stage, careful not to trip, dressed in my getup and with a disposable camera hiding my face. As in Cher’s infamous video, I’m a sailor taking her picture, until my mother pulls me into the act by the arm. I stare at the ceiling, while she puts a hand through my hair and takes my sailor cap as a prop. I smile, because that’s what I think I’m supposed to do, and eventually stumble back to the safety of a ficus offstage, walking like a penguin thrown onto a hot, sandy beach.

Afterward, my mother is handed a bouquet of red roses. It’s staged. Everything with my mother is premeditated, planned, and then executed. Spontaneity is reserved for fast food and sex, both of which she brings home with regularity and causes her to moan from whatever room she happens to be in at the time of her feast.

My mother takes second place that day, behind a Michael Jackson lookalike who dances and lip-syncs to “Beat It” and will end up in Vegas on his toes, grabbing hold of his crotch. On days like these my little sister and I know to tiptoe around my mother as she waves her arms and stomps around the house making dishes tremble in the cabinets. My mother slaps my sister’s ears because she missed a few dance moves to “Vogue” earlier in the day. Jennifer cowers in the family room on our chocolate brown sectional; her tears beading up on the Scotchgarding.

My mother stopped hitting me years ago, as soon as I could look her in the eye and block her hands with my own. But I remember. And now I simply watch her storms gather. Like a hurricane you can see coming, I easily get out of the way, but I know she’ll eventually strike someplace and someone.

When the “storm” passes, my mother will make our favorite meal—turkey ala king—and act like nothing happened. She’ll forget about the tattoo on her arm that’s fading but will need soap and water later. At times my mother is a hurricane, a tornado, a flood. Today, my mother is just another Florida sun shower, dropping rain on our heads with a certain level of surprise, pouring down on us with a certain degree of brightness.

Michael J. Soloway is in his final semester of the low-residency Creative Writing Masters Program at Wilkes University. He has served as managing editor of more than a dozen nonprofit magazines and is currently working on a memoir entitled, Women and Children First, about becoming a father for the first time in his 40s.

 Illustration by Marc Snyder