BY CARLA DIAZ
This is your youth: a time free from the self-reflexive tendencies of womanhood—when the mind is soft but you do not yet feel vague. Vague comes later. Before the vague there are nights to get through in which you fall asleep in your mother’s bed. She carries a burden stitched into her brow, into the carpet and curtains. Your father lives on, in the cabinet and the linoleum, the energy saver light bulbs and the harmonicas. You sleep by her side for thirteen years because she is a patient woman. Sage smoke lingers under the hood of an oversized lamp shade since someone, a bereavement counselor, recommends that people like her burn it in the home. The smoke contorts in the air like it’s in pain. The smoke, you think, looks like a person.
During these years, she takes every piece of advice she gets. She fills the house with plantlife, drinks hot teas—peppermint and kava, and avoids songs in the minor key. She walks around at a zombie’s pace, wielding a smoking torch and muttering some Catholic prayer, the only one she knows. You watch, cross-legged on the bed, biting your nails. “Don’t do that sweetheart,” she says. “Bad for your teeth.” The sky has fallen and somehow she still cares about teeth.
Wrapped in a pale yellow sheet, you will dream about depth—how it’s expanding around you always. In that fuzzy space between dreaming and waking, you do not feel your body but know it is being held. Your mother’s hair smells like sleep; the fan spins and wobbles overhead, matches the rhythm of her breathing every eight counts, then falls behind. Snores rattle softly in her throat then grows in volume, revving like a chainsaw. Each time you wake her, she is frightened. Panicked. “OH,” she says. “OH MY.” It angers you how there is no peaceful way.
As a young woman, you will look back on that closeness with skepticism and wonder if it truly existed. This closeness is hard to fathom even though it was yours. Other equally far-fetched realities include the immortal jellyfish, eagles that mate while airborne, sea cucumbers that eat through their feet. Such closeness will vanish from your life slowly, quietly, and without ceremony. You will not find it again until you are a mother yourself, when you can be, when you choose to be, when you are lucky enough that both are the case.
Middle school will tear through you painfully but quickly like a stomach flu. One day in seventh grade a boy named Luke will press a blue stone into your palm—one that resembles the cataracted cow eye that your science class dissected. This is the boy who stares at you during assembly, who is too interested in NASA, whose father has a high-up job at HBO. That last part is irrelevant except that status and wealth have always been more important to you than you want them to be. He calls the stone lapis lazuli, and you recognize it, also having visited the gem rack at the Natural History Museum gift shop. You keep your hand open and ask why. “Because I like you,” he says. “And I forgive you.” Confused, you ask him what you have done wrong. “Nothing yet,” he says. “It’s for later, when you tell your friends about this and make fun of me.” For the rest of the day, the stone hides in your pocket, warming as it presses against your thigh. You keep it a secret, determined to prove him wrong, and for some reason, to remain in his favor.
A few days later, you lose the stone and in one fiery moment, blame your mother. Inside your chest clings a sudden sadness. You are not able to look Luke in the eye, the way he stares like he knows you lost it, like he knows you told.
You will be sixteen the next time this happens—stumbling into someone’s favor—a moment when your mother is trying all sorts of tactics to meet new people. She attends figure drawing classes, tango nights at the YMCA, even church. Alex Dobson, a boy in your class known by everyone simply as “Dobs” (you will never meet an Alex who actually goes by the name), is a welcome distraction. He meets you online late at night. It is a ritual of yours: speaking to boys through your computer screen, sometimes until sunrise. They confide in you during the early morning when your eyes are chalky from lack of sleep. It feels good, gorging yourself on the clandestine intimacy of these talks, the low-hanging fruit of vulnerability. Your mother comes home from tango night and collapses on the couch. She is back from a failed date, and is too tired and too sad to eat the sandwich you made her. A fury lights inside your belly. There is the possibility, after all, that she will never find anyone ever again. Are you supposed to sit back and watch as your mother kills herself trying? “Eat,” you scold. “Eat and go to bed.”
The Dobson boy keeps you company online while your mother snores in the next room. Twelve thirty. One o’clock. Two o’clock. Latin class: the time and place for catching up on sleep. The midterm will stump most and include a question requiring the test-taker to translate the phrase: auribus teneo lupum. You will not know the meaning at the time, “to hold a wolf by the ears.” Instead, your mind will be stuffed with file cabinets of Dobson facts: that he scored so low on the PSATs his parents put him on medicine, that if he had to choose between skiing and surfing he would choose neither but World of Warcraft, that if he could have dinner with one person dead or alive it would be those guys who wrote the Matrix, that his little sister believes her dinner vegetables have thoughts and feelings like humans.
This will go on for some weeks, the never-ending song of high school. You pass each other occasionally in hallways but never say much. “Looking good today.” An instant message sprouts on your screen while you sit folded like a pretzel finishing your math homework. You know your reason for not speaking to him in school—a fear of breaking some spell. But what is his? Men will pop up in your home. Your mother never brings them over unless they are serious. Serious means no debt, no drugs, no divorce. She professes to trust them as long as they have kind eyes and hold doors, but the truth is that she only trusts widowers. If they are invited over to the house, it is for occasions as wholesome and heartbreaking as Tea or Dessert. It seems that having even the most meager romantic assembly requires Macy’s-Thanksgiving-Day-Parade levels of coordination. She cooks lasagna and boils fresh mint. You meet nice widowers in their chunky knit sweaters purchased from the Gap and genuinely like each of them. Her eyes light up when they touch her arm. Her laughter jumps when they make a corny joke. “Did you hear about the guy whose entire left side was cut off?” She shakes her head encouragingly. “He’s all right now!” Your mother tosses her head back and cackles, then she glances at you to measure your response. “Get it sweetheart? All right?” You get it.
Eventually, these men do too: that being with your mother means being with a woman who will never love them as much as she loves her daughter. One by one, they see themselves out.
You will sneak out approximately six times to meet Dobs in front of the Zabar’s on Broadway. The first few times, you kiss in front of a large wheel of cheese on the outside of a frosted window. He places a palm on your chest at the same time as an ambulance rushes past you. Your heart races, though you won’t know if it is because of the ambulance or the hand. A giant manchego supervises from nearby.
The second time, you spend most of the evening standing on the sidewalk talking. He tells you a story about something that had happened during soccer practice and you have a hard time listening. The first hour with him is always like lowering yourself into hot water—you’re fixated on the temperature changes, the warmth of him. His mouth moves into familiar shapes and you nod senselessly. The reason he likes soccer is because of how fair and uncomplicated it is. “Sports,” he says, as if that sums it up. It makes your heart seize. What he must be implying is that everything else, yourself included, is more complicated, less like sports, and thus not as great, so you nod, sad that you aren’t soccer.
Now you are ready for the hand but it doesn’t come. As you kiss, press yourself into his chest, hoping to indicate what is okay for him to take, but when you do this, he stops and looks down at his feet. You are left with the top of his head—his dark little hairs were curled and speckled with the lightest dusting of dandruff. You like his moodiness. You like his dandruff. It begins to rain, a quick wall of sound dropping everywhere. He takes off his soccer jacket and drapes it over your shoulders. It’s baggy-sleeved, spacious, and still warm from his body, the graciousness of an oversized thing making you feel small and lovely.
In school, you will feel sorry for the other girls—girls who shuffle from class to class with coats wrapped tightly around their waists like they’re sliced down the middle and trying to hold themselves together. You, on the other hand, have a secret vitality that no one can touch. This occurs to you on World Peace Day, when your school’s administration erects three peace poles all inscribed in various languages. Hundreds of students gather in the gymnasium for assembly and sing songs in French and Swahili. “Wow,” you mutter. The music strikes you like a human hand. You are moving through the world openly, projecting beauty onto anything that will stand still. A stick. A table. A glossy gym floor. A song performed by the eighth grade class. It’s because of your shared bond with Dobs, you assume—glittering and singular and true. You have found something true. It imbues you with a secret strength. One to wield throughout your days, in every bite of tomato sandwich, in every icy sip from the water fountain, in every dinner dish you scrub. “What are you doing?” Your mother shouts over the sound of your vacuuming. “Yeah!” You cheer. “Yes!” She leaves you alone. With every push and pull of the machine, you check your hips to the side like a Ricky Martin backup dancer. A voice in your head repeats the affirmation: It’s me he wants. It’s me he wants. Knowledge of this sends electricity through your brain, your chest, providing unnatural measures of energy for additional tasks you would normally begrudge: calling your grandmother, completing an extra credit assignment, flossing.
It surprises you—how nice it feels to be treated like an extension of someone else. Like an ambassador from the far-off country of The Committed, but you can’t help thinking it was too good to be true when he is spotted lingering in hallways, dripping all over Rosha Snyder. The two of them are egregious and public with their displays of affection, sharing an umbrella in light rain, lap-sitting in the cafeteria, feeding each other cucumber coins. On your way to the bus stop, you pass them and their linked arms, and you lean harder into the wind, coat cinched too tightly at your waist. At home, you are so upset that your mother takes your temperature. You spill the whole story: Zabar’s, the instant messages, the cucumber coins. “What a waste of time! You don’t need people like that.” She always knows when to play good cop, when to play bad.
Music will return to your life in the form of a six-part choir. Four men and two women configured in a half-circle, standing on the stage of an auditorium made from cinder and brick. It’s convocation—you have enrolled at some middle-of-the-road University. This time, you can’t blame the effect of music on the coercive hypnotism of some crush. The next logistical step is to cram as many music department classes into your schedule. Your college years are the best years of your life—that’s something people say—but you can never shake the feeling that you’re doing an impersonation of yourself, that you’re tapping at the surface of something. When you get mono your sophomore year and stand up too quickly, you faint head-first into your desk. A goose egg grows on your eyebrow in a matter of seconds. “I’m fine,” you assure your mother on the phone. Of course, she cannot see you, wrapped in three sweatshirts and a winter coat, clutching a small trash can between your legs. You ice the bruise on your forehead with your roommate’s frozen pot brownie. “I’m fine,” you repeat. “You don’t have to come.” “But no one is there,” her voice breaks. Is she crying? “No one is there and you just fainted.”
You hit your stride junior year when a sorority that is supposed to be body-positive asks if you want to join. “We need a critical mass,” says the girl with serious teeth. You are not sure about this, but you need people to study around, to drink sugary wine with, and that is all. Soon you declare a major, your mother will call with news from back home: she has found herself a man who pays his bills and dances merengue. You take the train home for Thanksgiving to meet him and as soon as you walk inside, the apartment already looks and smells different. Stranger shoes by the front door, lined-up on the welcome mat. “I’ve heard so much about you,” he says, extending a hand that you shake. By the microwave there is a Keurig. Your mother is stirring the beef stroganoff and making everyone individual servings of herbal tea. Husks of K-cups glut the trash can. Moments later, the man clogs the toilet, causing the bathroom to flood. “It’s fine!” he shouts over the sound of forceful plunging. “Nothing to worry about!” When he finally comes out, the bottom six inches of his slacks are dark with wetness and he is nearly purple from embarrassment. Remember. Your mother will be a patient woman. She deals plates onto the table and lights candles. She sets an example of seeing and accepting people for all their virtues and imperfections. Over dinner, she mentions your shared interest in journalistic photography and this provides a kind of conversational worry stone. Something for you both to turn over in your palms all the way through dessert.
After he leaves, you and your mother will sit together in semi-natural silence drinking turmeric green tea. Outside, night forces your eyes to generalize—the shapes of buildings across the street flattening vaguely against an already flat sky. Fire escapes, barely visible in the spillage of kitchen light, delicate, as though cut from lace, wind down paint-chipped brick. Shapes of men and women pass through the small yellow windows. Shapes that pour their wine, wash their hands, stand curiously still for minutes at a time. She will ask you what you think of him. In her voice, you will hear the ache for approval, how cruel it would be to shrug your shoulders the way you want to. She sips at her tea with puckered lips, once red, now a paler rust after some hours of wear. This feeling is hatred: for the power she has given you, for the way she places you across from her future, an invisible happiness arranging itself like a card castle, calmly asking if you’d like to blow it down. “He’s great,” you say, not dishonestly. “Really great.” Your mother cracks a small smile like she’s trying not to laugh. “I think so, too,” she says. After all, he has what your mother calls Character having survived great loss, having been devout to a woman in sickness. And the fact is, he is good. You know this soon enough. “I love you,” she says, but you know what she really means: “I love him, though never as much as you.” “I love you,” you reply, but she will know what you really mean: “I love you, though never as much as you love me,” and perhaps, you think, this is the way all mothers and daughters have loved since the beginning of time.
The wedding will be held in springtime in a narrow, bumpy hard, just large enough to fit twenty wooden folding chairs. A house, the bright, raw color of a peeled peach, crouching beside a manmade pond sealed over with a layer of neon green slime. Intimate, your mother calls it. No doubt. The town is provincial, secluded, and blooming in three colors during the warmer months. This is always how you imagined upstate. There are two gaping holes in the ground beneath your flats where the FOR SALE sign has been temporarily uprooted. After the wedding, the house is going back on the market. Something related to stocks and bonds and—things are just tight right now. “But who cares about all that?” Your mother says. It’s April. “I’m so happy.”
By then, you will have acquired a college degree in addition to paralyzing levels of student loans. To top it off, your major—Anthropology of Music—is arguably useless. Your twenties are spent arranging pop-up music tables in various public school classrooms, speaking in improvised melodies, teaching children about whole notes and quarter notes while tapping the triangle, blowing into the recorder, raking the guiro that is shaped like a fish. Children are never quiet when you need them to be. They carry on full conversations with fingers up their noses. Classrooms blend together with their circular rugs and harsh fluorescent lights. One girl stands out—a six-year-old named Olive who has a small bladder. She always has to pee. This is an ordeal since peeing makes her miss her dead mom. Apparently, Olive’s mom invented some elusive pee-time song, known to no other person on earth. Olive sobs unless an adult agrees to watch her and make sure she doesn’t fall into the toilet. “Olive,” you say. “Why are you so afraid of the toilet?” She replies over the sound of her own tinkle: “Why are you so afraid of the toilet?” Sure, she’s mocking you, but that fighting spirit will serve her later in life. It makes you love her. After flushing and washing her hands (“To the entire alphabet,” you remind), she wipes them dry on the front of her purple shirt and looks up at you. “How many oceans are there?” You think hard. “Four? Five?… Four.” She nods as if that settles it, and weasels past you.
At least children will know that respect is something earned, not given, and you will like them more for it. Their curiosity about things seems opposite to the men you’ve dated. Men who arrive at restaurants with a puzzling air of certainty, guessing at your dinner order, wrong every time. “The lemon glazed salmon? No—the oysters with pearl tapioca.” You never want the small, clean, feminine meals they hazard. “Pork loin,” you tell the waiter, “with an extra side of potatoes.” You enjoy what satisfactions you can control (such as food) after having been hungry for years, though not in your stomach. “I feel empty,” you report to a therapist who you do not continue to visit. “Empty-depressed?” The therapist guesses. “Empty-angry? Empty-confused?” She continues attaching the word “empty” to different emotions, all of which you feel more or less, but not with enough sting to claim. “Just empty,” you say, the leather couch squeaking as you adjust the bottom of your coat. It is January. The bluest month according to some journal. Rife in failed resolutions and regret—a natural kickback from the force of Christmas and New Years, December’s nostalgic purge. Clutching your scarf on the sidewalk and heading for the two train, you shuffle past Zabar’s, past those giant wheels of cheese, and for a moment you feel like a teenager again, only this time bored by your sadness.
In addition to a job working with toddlers and pre-K, you will have a small but regular paycheck and health insurance that covers catastrophic injury. When you ask the insurance agent on the phone what qualifies as catastrophic, she replies, “If you’re hit by a bus, for example.” “If I’m hit by a bus?” “Or a car.” “What use is that? I take the subway.” “Cheer up,” she says. “This is New York City. It could happen at any moment.” Months later, you think back to this exchange after getting clipped by a taxi on your way to Gristedes, falling backwards, and fracturing your wrist. This happens in May, just in time for your ten year college reunion. You saunter along the repaved paths of the university grounds with an arm brace and sucking down the IPA you acquired from Nebby—another member of your sorority who had volunteered to bartend the reunion despite the fact that she lived in substance-free housing way-back-when. “Making up for lost time?” You send your voice above the clatter—something about reunion and its lively spirit of second chances has turned you playful. “What?” She squints to hear better. “Oh—” she says, “the time? It’s eleven twenty-eight!” and hands you some bottle.
This unremarkable school in this unremarkable town in central Connecticut will look entirely different—the buildings you slept, cried, fooled around in, all torn down. Glossy, sharp exteriors, bulletproof elevators and airtight windows are erected in their places. The grime and decrepitude of the old campus, quickly erased. The train, which you have almost forgotten, clatters nearby beyond the boundary of some dark trees. 10:21pm. Your wristwatch confirms the time of the New York City direct line. It is the train your mother rode home after helping you move in, after holding a wet cloth to your forehead to cool the blaze of your mononucleosis, after coming to see each of your orchestra performances.
As you sit on the concrete steps of the campus center, cold will seep through the threads of your jeans numbing your thighs. In the distance, graduates huddle together under white tents, imagining their futures. Tiki torches spangle the dark, muddy fields; the tenors of their voices pop and fly above the offbeat thumping of different songs. Someone beckons you from a place you cannot see. A tall man with an unevenly charming face, like a chipped dinner-plate. He calls himself Steven and looks vaguely recognizable as he lowers himself onto the stone next to you. He holds a gold can that, by the way he rattles it, you can tell is nearly empty. Examining his sunless face, you estimate that he must be an artist or a smoker or both.
“I remember you,” he says, taking a swing from his can. “What happened to your arm?” When you tell him about the taxi, he cringes as if he is watching a movie of events unfold before him. “It’s okay,” you assure him, demonstrating how you can open and close your fist. “I’m a lefty.” “Funny,” he says with a sharp laugh, a puff of air. “Me too.”
Some hours later, the two lefties stagger into a dark, rented dorm room undressing. Silent, except for the clatter of shoes kicked into a corner, knocking against the thin plaster wall. Outside, the party continues but muted, a colorful light-show tracking the belly of a canopy enclosure like a flashlight trapped under a palm. Above you, Steven acrobatically avoids your injured arm and takes great care to protect you from pain. For two years you have ignored your body. The idea of sex having occurred to you only on occasion (for example, passing a stranger with pervy face piercings—a gauge in his lip or eyebrow, another sitting next to you on the bus with clean fingernails) but never guiltlessly, as though sex were someone to whom you owed a phone call. A jittery thrill returns to your body, somewhat painfully, like blood to a sleeping limb. Steven gives your shoulder a soft bite and when you reach for his chin expecting a coarseness, it is smooth like a woman’s, though not unpleasantly, and he feels like a new house, all familiar rooms in a different order.
When all is said and done, you lay on top of the covers in some half-light, overjoyed to have executed a task you feared to have forgotten. Who cares if it was “good” or “bad”? He will ask if you want to go downstairs. “For a cigarette.” He pulls out a pack of Marlboros when it hits you. “Political Science!” You shout at him the way enthusiasts shout at Jeopardy. “You were a Political Science major.” Reclining on the pillows triumphantly, you cross your arms over your bare stomach. You knew he wasn’t an artist. Somehow, this makes everything okay. First, you dated a painter, then in your mid-twenties, a writer. Artists, you will come to believe, are impossible to keep at a safe distance. They’re always trying to close some gap.
You will expect the whole affair to end that night but the next day when you board the train to New York City, there he’ll be—one hand stuffed into his pocket, the other thumbing some message into his phone. Who is he texting? A girlfriend? A wife? He mentioned a job in the city, but lost you after “on Wall Street” since you don’t care—or don’t want to care—about all that. In daylight, he is still the charming, clean-shaven, pale-faced financier. He seems happy to see you and insists that you share the trip back. So you talk intermittently throughout the ride into New York—more and more, vertical concrete structures emerge from the window until it’s all there is. No more sky now. The two of you share interludes of silent mechanical rocking. You gaze through opposite windows. Exchange numbers. Give it time. You go on a few dates in which he buys you drinks the price of movie tickets; you learn each other’s apartments, each other’s pet-peeves, each other’s family members; you find him easy to be around except when angry—you have a tendency to get quiet, he has the tendency to slam doors; you resent how he regards the smallness of your life including your job and your closeness with your mother and how he asks if you’re going to “live like this forever”; he resents how you scowl each time that he climbs the stairs to the roof to smoke. (“Can’t you just quit?” “It relaxes me.” “It’s bad for you.” “So is caffeine. Would you give up coffee if I gave up cigarettes?” “That’s different.” “How is it different?” “Don’t be an idiot.”) Time passes fast and slow; an underwater dash. Businesses in your neighborhood shut down and are replaced by co-working spaces and Juice Generations. In spring, teenagers roam the avenues in cut-offs. In a way you also feel seventeen but when you stop to do the math you realize that you were almost done with high school by the time these seventeen year olds were born. To them, you must look fully-cooked–maternal, even, if they could see the inside of your purse, which contains a small bottle of mouthwash, a checkbook, a bag of cashews, the provisions of life one needs just in case.
Steven finds a big-enough one-bedroom near the subway—no broker’s fee, a bay window—and the two of you move in. You always thought that living with someone was a kind of pre-engagement. After all, who would be masochistic enough to fuse the muscle and bone of two lives if they weren’t absolutely certain? Your mother agrees. “Are you certain?” This makes you angry that she asks. “As certain as a person can be,” you reply. “Does he make you laugh?” This is the only thing she ever seems to care about, and now she won’t drop it. “He’s lighthearted enough.” “That’s not what I mean,” she says. “Does he make you laugh like ha ha?” Sometimes, she can be a pain in the ass. “It’s happening, Mom. It’s already decided.”
Eventually decisions have their way with you. Arguments with Steven get worse until speaking is a thing you avoid. When he informs you of his Christmas bonus, you look at him plainly. “That’s money out of the pockets of good people,” you say, and he turns his back on you, shuts the door. Overnight, he leaves his starched suit hanging over the tufted lounge chair. He snores, and you stare at the flat, dark, outline of the blazer—his second skin. Something a snake sheds. Headlights shine through the curtains’ openings, your eyes follow the tiny circular lights that move slowly across the wall. The bedroom, a depressed disco. You don’t want to care about the snake skin, but you do.
The four year mark will creep up on you both. How fast time moves after the age of thirty-five. You are still teaching children with ADHD how to stroke the guiro and calling your mother every Sunday asking her to send you photos of her new painting (she’s experimenting with perspective in that one, light in the other), and finding yourself tangled in the bed sheets of a bartender named Ryan because you had to find a way out—you just had to—and didn’t respect yourself enough to up end things like an adult.
After the messy, desperate fracture, Steven will move into a studio somewhere in lower Manhattan (finally closer to work), and you will discover surprising comfort in the routines of solitary worship. A church in your neighborhood flies a rainbow flag and hosts wine tastings. You attend the less popular Tuesday night services. There, you find a pew alone where no one hears you botching the prayers. Sundays are for the real believers. Young, devout couples clutch each other’s elbows, so happy and plain. Why couldn’t your mother raise you with a healthy fear of God? When you press your palms together, it’s hard to rid yourself of the feeling you’re a fake. You are trying to remember how to pray but the truth is that you never knew. These are the things you do know: that people call each other names, say things they don’t mean. They have opportunities to leave dignified, whole, and ultimately turn them down. You already know you won’t tell your mother the whole story.
Shocking nonetheless when one week later you discover that your mother is also keeping a secret. She has known about her illness for a year—an entire year—incredible, since she has presumably never kept secrets in the past, but what do you know? Question everything. By the time she can no longer hide it (medicine causing nausea, confusion, irritability on the phone), your stepfather will mention that the two of you ought to comb through her will and testament, help her get things in order so that everything is right.
You consider what is needed to make things right.
The first time you visit her after finding this out, she asks how you take your tea, but she knows: milk, no sugar. Why is she pretending not to know? Mom, you think. Why are you pretending not to know? Is it her tumor?–that word no one will speak? You wake up every morning for weeks, pressing the pads of your fingers into the puffy bags under your eyes, feeling for the cushion of age and lack of sleep. People have been telling you all your life that you look like your mother. Only now, in your distress and her sickness, do you agree.
In your exhaustion, kindergarteners simplify into blurs, moving rapidly around the room, washing their hands for ten minutes at a time or no minutes at a time, shouting out the names of their boogers while a rumba plays from the Bluetooth speaker. One… two and… three… four and.. You do not care. You feel sorry for how things ended with Steven. And for your mother, who last week confused her bread for butter and tried spreading it over her chicken. Using her knife, she rubbed the dry, spongy sourdough over the white meat, frustrated that it wouldn’t melt. “That’s bread, Mom.” A flash of embarrassment across her face, then laughter. “How funny am I!” She exclaimed, tears gathering in the corners of her eyes.
You wish you were a child again climbing into her bed, holding her tightly the way girls hold their mothers before womanhood and desire. Back then, when the bed was a place for mothers and daughters. You can still see her pacing the room with the burning torch—sage smoke bending over you, over your grief. Or maybe you don’t want to be a child again, you simply want your mother to be known by another child. It is one way to capture her in time—for your daughter to be a witness to your mother’s immensity. You want to bring someone else to the ledge of the Grand Canyon. You want to say, “See how big this is? Don’t you ever forget how big.”
You will leave Steven voicemails for a month saying you’re sorry, that you need a re-do, but he does not pick up. “I wasn’t right in the head,” you reach. “I needed time. My mother is sick. I miss you.” You can hear yourself flailing in the silence of his answering machine, but you cannot stop. “Please.” It occurs to you that you are begging.
You stand naked in the bathroom, staring at yourself in the medicine cabinet mirror. A cracked mug rests in the soap divot. The dishwasher has been broken for a week; no calls made to the landlord. You cup your breasts and lift them a few inches higher, but the truth is they never looked like that. You are making yourself sad for nothing.
Three sharp knocks at the front door. Likely the downstairs neighbor is back to complain about the ceiling leak. You slip on a shirt and walk to the front door. Outside on the doormat is a bundled basket of cheese and charcuterie swaddled in a cloth like an infant child. From Steven, the card says. Hoping for your mother’s recovery. Perhaps this is when the idea comes to you, though you can’t be certain. Now more than ever, in your mother’s illness, you need to push your life forward. Big decisions are best when left to cook, so you wait a year. After a year, no longer.
At forty, you will get yourself pregnant with sperm from a bank. By then, your stepfather has begun coordinating your visits to your mother in their uptown apartment. She will react to your globe shaped belly each time like it’s the first time she’s seen you all swollen like that. Her eyes close, palm rests over your taut skin as if you were a crystal ball. “Your mother’s a fighter,” the doctor says. And it’s true, she can still get around the city on her own without an escort, ride the subway, refill her MetroCard. The same doctor assures you and your stepfather that for the time being, it’s safe to leave her alone in the apartment. “She’s truly impressed us all here at the hospital. We’ve never seen anyone make such a comeback.” The doctor is smart and lovely and you want him to hold you. “Especially after a grand mal seizure like the one she had last month.” You imagine the doctor doing all kinds of dirty things to you. Flipping you over, fucking you so hard that your body breaks and crumbles into a thousand pieces that scatter all across the hospital floor and melt into some tidal wave capable of wiping out the entire neuro-oncology wing. Pervert. What’s your problem? He’s a nice, professional man and your mother is dying. Every day, she forgets a new word like there’s a dictionary in her head from which a page is torn. Some lexical sacrifice. In return, another few months of life. On Tuesday she loses conundrum. On Wednesday, specifics. Thursday, the entire nation of Argentina.
The baby girl will not look like you—her dark brown eyes and cheesy grin—but then again, in a certain light, with her mouth agape and drooly cheeks, you see the resemblance. That stupid, hungry, bring-on-the-breast milk attitude. You hope that she is different—that she finds people in this universe she trusts and loves who are not her mother. Surprisingly, you do not feel guilty for bringing her into the world (warming, warring, wasting) as it is. You feel redeemed when you look at her, the closing of some loop. And for the first two years of your daughter’s life, your mother is healthy enough to love her, to watch her in the playground, to sneak her Little Debbies before dinner though she never did this for you. There forms a particular wordless intimacy between them. They laugh for all the things they cannot say. Your mother looks at your daughter, smiles. It’s as if she has arrived. A bright cabin light turning on behind her eyes—a traveler returning to the safety of her face.
Often, the three of you visit the park together. There, your daughter hands your mother strange, found objects, which they hold to the sun to examine—a glittery stone from the sand pit, a dry, transparent leaf, a detached butterfly wing. The granddaughter straddles the grandmother’s knee. The granddaughter’s small hands open like flowers, pinching her grandmother’s skin, tissue paper thin, blue veins extending across the forearms like a subway map. “Wrinkle,” the granddaughter says. “Stone.” “Leaf.” “Wing.” Testing out the words. She does not yet know if the words are good or bad; they’re simply what she sees.
One day in July when the three of you are at the park, you and your mother have the moment you need. Your two-year-old is digging her fists into the sandbox, and, in all honesty, you’re off somewhere else, pondering bologna—How is it made?—when a hand reaches for yours and squeezes. You look down and see your mother’s veiny fingers covering yours, that gold bracelet she has worn since the dawn of time, still shining and polished. You don’t look at her face but you can imagine what it’s doing: mouth tightening into a restrained smile. It’s that look she gets when her cloud of confusion breaks—when she understands exactly what’s going on. You squeeze back.
Your mother will die on a Friday with her shoes on and a kettle warming over the stove. Your stepfather will be visiting his friend Bernie who lives across town. The nextdoor neighbors will be the ones to hear the kettle squealing, and will wait eight minutes before calling the police.
Why do people own things? More importantly, why are you getting so upset? A coat is not your mother. A book on Victorian architecture is not your mother. A huddle of boxes nagging you from the corner, waiting to be dealt with, is not your mother. You will get to them eventually—any day now. You’re just waiting to feel less like a walking nerve ending. For weeks, a phrase keeps falling out of your mouth—to doormen, taxi drivers, cashiers. They ask, Which floor? How’s the FDR? Paper or plastic? You tell them that she was alone. What was that?—plastic? Three weeks pass, three months. A jewelry box, two cases of china, a few crates of clothing including your father’s college diploma, report cards, photographs. You see it. You see it.
An old friend calls, offers to visit and help get things in order, but you tell her the apartment is in no condition for guests. Then some lazy Sunday when you cannot procrastinate any further, you finally open the case of china, unpack the bowls and plates, stack them inside the cabinet. You pry apart the box of clothing, choose what to donate, what to keep and hang, what to keep and store. You stretch out on the living room carpet, stomach down, tumbling through invented narratives that unfurl from your father’s polaroids. You spend minutes at a time with each one. Your daughter crawls over your back and hugs your neck. “That’s Grandpa,” you say and loosen her chokehold. “Wasn’t he handsome?” She blinks and jams a thumb into her mouth. You pin two photos to the corkboard nestled between the spice rack and the refrigerator then lift the lid of the jewelry box to find a familiar looking stone, blue and cloudy white. Holding it in your palm you remember Luke, the boy who gave it to you twenty-nine years ago, the kindness he offered at such a young age, and how your mother wanted you to be free of it. Forgiveness—this gift that breathes down your neck, eyes you across the room, keeps score. You don’t know why, but even then you wanted that stone. A thing so beautiful that cannot change.
At night, you tuck your daughter in, kiss her forehead, squeeze her against you. Her breath is warm and small, like a baby animal’s. But she is already a person. Even more of a person than she was yesterday when she asked to be in charge of the mail and to carry it by herself all the way up six flights of stairs. She does not wish to sleep in your bed because of the nightlight on her bedside table—she adores it—a paper lantern with dolphins and starfish cut into the sides, rotating in quiet circles. “You don’t have to be afraid,” you tell her, but she isn’t. Sleep takes her instantly. It’s amazing actually, and for once you think your wish will come true—she will be different—after all, so much has already been different. But what do we ever know? In the years to come, she might lose her patience and turn to God, develop a habit, or hit a dog with her car, or go blind by the age of thirty-eight. The truth is and always has been: there’s no knowing for mothers. As you stand to leave, the bed squeaks. Your daughter shudders beneath the covers, places a hand over the warm space you left behind and then a sigh escapes her mouth, moving upward like a question.
Carla Diaz is a writer from New York City. Her work appears in Joyland Magazine, the Kenyon Review Online, Sonora Review, and elsewhere, and has been supported by scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Minnesota Northwoods Writers’ Conference. She is currently at work on a story collection and a novel about love and the passage of time.
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