Eight Photographs

By Kim Adrian

Featured Art: The Child’s Bath by Mary Cassatt

The current set of complications involves a three-unit bridge—the kind a dentist puts in your mouth. Actually, I’m talking about half of a six-unit bridge that at some point during my mother’s cleaning rituals got cracked down the middle. In any case, my mother swallowed this thing while she was driving out from Chicago after my sister kicked her out. She was taking a handful of pills when the bridge, which was loose, dislodged and got swept down her esophagus.

You see, already, how complicated?

Three-unit bridges are weighty little constructions made of porcelain and gold. At the base, where they fit into the gumline, they are, as my mother puts it, “sharp as razors.” I don’t think they are actually that sharp, but that the metal tapers to a very thin point is certainly the case.

I keep hoping that the three-unit bridge will simply evaporate, as some of my mother’s more exotic problems occasionally do. Her brain tumor, for instance, disappeared when her systemic bacterial infection started acting up. And I haven’t heard anything about her TMJ issues ever since she went deaf in her left ear. Although I like to think that my mother didn’t really swallow this bridge, I also worry that maybe she did. She herself is convinced it will kill her. She claims she’s been bleeding internally on account of this “foreign object,” and, as proof, I’ve been informed, in great detail (Mark says it’s my own fault for listening), of the color and consistency of her bowel movements. That she’s been bleeding internally and high up in the intestine is proved, she says, by the blackness of her stool. I’m paraphrasing. Suffice it to say that my mother checks every day for the bridge, but it has yet to give itself up.

My mother arrived in Boston or, rather, in Everett (a crummy little city on the outskirts of Boston) a little more than a month ago. She’s been staying at a youth hostel that advertises itself on the internet as having an easy, laid-back, party-hearty atmosphere. This place costs only $150 a week, which is all that concerns my mother because her income is limited—ever since Ruth died, ever since my father stopped paying her alimony—to Disability Insurance.

I have not visited my mother in Everett. I have not, although she’s requested me to on several occasions, accompanied her to the doctor so that they might check on the state of her intestines. I have not, as she has also requested, accompanied her to the storage company where she still has many large and heavy things—end-tables, armoires—that would go into a home of hers, if only she had one. Nor have I searched the internet for a tax lawyer, as she’s asked me to do, nor helped her with any other of the many, many things she has asked me to help her with, although Mark and I have given her money on a couple of occasions—money she promised us she would pay back the next day, but still has not. And while we’ve invited her to dinner several times since she’s come East, she’s declined because she doesn’t want Sylvie to see her “like this.” The state of her mouth without the bridge, she’s explained, would scare a child.

Still, my mother and I have had some decent phone conversations over the last month and a half. During these calls, she mostly complains about being incredibly tired, and wonders when the three-unit bridge is finally going to work its way out of her system, and asks, only semi-rhetorically, why this sort of thing is always happening to her. But occasionally our talks veer, for little stretches at a time, away from her problems and onto topics we sometimes have fun talking about, like food and clothing and books. Last week, for instance, she called me on my cell phone when I was in a second-hand clothes store trying on a designer blouse with a bizarre neckline, and she helped talk me out of buying this blouse in a way that had me laughing to the point of crossing my legs so that I wouldn’t pee as I stood in the store’s cramped closet of a dressing room. And this was very helpful because, truly, that blouse would have been a purchase to regret.

The long and the short of it, though, is that until yesterday, phone calls had been the extent of our contact since my mother came back East. Yesterday was Memorial Day. Sylvie had off from school, and in the morning, she, Mark, and I took the dogs for a long walk in the woods, then went to our favorite farm stand. Among our purchases were strawberries and rhubarb, which Sylvie and I put in a pie later that afternoon. Which is why, about an hour before dinner, I took a walk to the small commercial center near our apartment to buy a pint of vanilla ice cream (because pie, at least so far as Sylvie is concerned, is really just a vehicle for ice cream). As I emerged from the over-air-conditioned vault of the ice-cream store into a blast of early summer heat, I noticed a woman crossing the street with purposeful intent. She had heavy, pewter grey hair cut to her jawline and a determined expression on her face. She wore a white sleeveless shirt and a tan shoulderbag, and she looked thin and strong, and I thought: That looks like Mom, only German. And actually, it was my mother, although about the German part, I can’t really say.

She held her hand over her mouth when we spoke. She explained that she’d been trying to go to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription, but because it was Memorial Day, it must have closed early. (For some reason, my mother favors the pharmacies in Brookline, where she once lived herself, in a nice one-bedroom apartment, but that was when her “wife” Ruth was still alive, and helping with her rent). She said she just happened to see me come out of the ice cream store. “I recognized you by your carriage,” she said, her words muffled by her fingers, which she held against her lips in the way some people do when they laugh. It was hot and I found myself worrying about the ice cream in the brown paper bag I was holding. Although I wasn’t crazy about the idea, I asked if my mother wanted to come home with me for dinner, but she said she couldn’t—she didn’t want to see Sylvie; or, rather, she didn’t want Sylvie to see her. Then she took her hand away from her mouth and pulled down her lower lip, and I saw that she was right: what was there—six tiny, yellowed nubs—looked like witch’s teeth and it would certainly have scared my daughter.

I started to cry, but fortunately I was wearing dark sunglasses. I suggested we sit on a bench for a few minutes, and we did, and still I was worried about the ice cream. We talked about my mother’s housing options and we talked about how she might speak without holding her hand over her mouth, but also without showing her bottom teeth, and she practiced doing this with some success although she looked very old when she did, because it was obvious that she was missing a lot of teeth by the way her lower lip moved. Eventually, I said I needed to be going since it was getting close to dinnertime, and she told me, yes, I’d better do that because my ice cream must surely be melting. Then she said that she, too, was hankering after some ice cream, but she was worried she didn’t have enough money for a cone, and I started digging in my pocket. She stood up and said No, and started walking quickly away. I found some coins in my pockets, and ran after her, and we had a weird tug-of-war there in the middle of the sidewalk with me trying to put the change in my mother’s hand and her trying to push the change away.

Brookline, Massachusetts, ca. 1996

Over a span of several years, my mother took many photographs of herself. Also many videos. She used to film herself as she worked at her computer, having carefully arranged a circle of bright lights all around her desk as if it were a stage set. Judging from the fact that she had it enlarged to an 8×10, this is the self-portrait that she liked best. In it, her mask is fully in place. Her smile is entirely insincere, her eyes unnaturally focused, her posture stiff. She is holding a teacup as if she were about to take a sip, yet the cup—even though you can’t see inside it—seems quite empty. But my mother’s features are exactly where they are supposed to be. I mean, the only reason I can imagine she liked this photograph so much is that, in it, the classic proportions of her face are so obvious; on some computerized grid of desirable chin-to-mouth, mouth-to-nose, nose-to-eyes ratio, her face would more or less match-up. Still, the extreme sadness and disorder behind the well-placed bones and cartilage are perfectly clear—you find these things in the subtly uncertain line of her upper lip and in the eagerness of her gaze, which trump, by a long shot, the faded fifty-year-old mask.

The last time I saw my mother before she moved to Everett was on one of her East Coast pharmacy runs, when she was still staying with my sister. During the year and a half she lived in Chicago, she made it a point to come East every couple of months in order to see her doctors and to pick up prescriptions, which she claims are much cheaper on the coast, particularly in Rhode Island. After having driven out from Chicago over the course of three days, she called at about six from a CVS a few blocks from my place to say she was on her way over for the dinner we’d planned on having together. I told her how to get to our new apartment, which she hadn’t been to yet, and which is a little tricky to find. I told her which side of the street to park on. I warned her about the dim lighting, the small house numbers. After half an hour, I called her cell phone. She claimed to be parked nearby, but described a scene I didn’t recognize. Mark went out on the street to look for her but couldn’t find her. After another twenty minutes (the pasta sauce was ready, the water boiling, the table set), I went outside myself to look. I was wearing my slippers and my feet were getting wet. The evening was drizzly and cold, the sky a murky, twilit grey. I looked carefully up and down the sidewalk, expecting to see my mother’s hurrying figure, expecting to recognize her by the distracted yet businesslike walk she adopts whenever she’s flustered, one hand out at her side for balance. But I only saw a man with a newspaper on his head. He looked at my slippers, my face, my slippers, my face. I wanted to say “you have a newspaper on your head,” but I didn’t. I walked a little further down the street, and found my mother’s car.

She was in the front seat, wearing a white tank top. The interior lights were on, revealing a back seat filled with pillows, blankets, boxes of paperwork, old fast-food take out containers, a bottle of bleach, and a large jug of the hospital-strength liquid soap she favors called “Hibicleanse.” My mother had one arm raised over her head and seemed to be washing her armpit. I crossed the street, which is busy, and stood well out in front of her, where she could see all of me. “Mom!” I called, and I saw, when she looked up, a remoteness in her eyes that seemed to indicate deep involvement with whatever she was doing there in the front seat of her car and I realized that she would probably have been much longer at these ablutions (the mouthwash was set out on the dashboard, the
brush on her lap) if I hadn’t found her. “It’s cold,” I said. “Come on.”

I can hardly remember how the conversation went. It’s always like this for me around my mother. Reality shifts, somehow; I lose my bearings, can’t grab on to things long enough to remember them even the next day. Of course, I know the gist of what got said: there was talk about her teeth, her infection, her useless doctors. She told us about the apartment she was sharing with my sister, and the various improvements she’d been making to it, and the trickiness of Tracey’s landlord, who is lazy and sneaky. She ventured a while into a new area of interest of hers—the internet, the government, and Bill Gates. All elections from here on out, she assured us, will be rigged.

I couldn’t relax. “Are you okay, Kimmy?” she asked. I tried to smile, but my face felt like it was made out of wet clay—my cheeks wouldn’t move. On my mother’s neck were dime-sized raw spots, what I’m sure would have been scabs if they’d been left alone long enough. She claimed they just appeared on their own, but I don’t believe this. She’s told me on too many other occasions about how she kneads the glands all over her body, about how the infection she’s convinced will one day kill her (an infection no doctor is willing to admit she has) seems to be concentrated in her glands. These spots along the length of her neck, she explained, are her salivary glands, and they are very troublesome. Sometimes, hard as rocks. She thinks they might be ossifying. Sylvie touched one of the dark pink, shiny spots with her finger and asked if it hurt, and I had to resist the urge to jump up and wash her hands.

My mother did most of the talking. It’s always this way. But at one point after dinner, when Mark was putting Sylvie to bed, I started telling my mother a story. She said she was very interested in this story. “I really want to hear this,” she said, “I just have to pee.” She spent fifteen minutes in the bathroom. When she finally came out, she asked for a bottle of cleanser. “Just something to scrub the sink.” She’d rinsed her mouth and was worried about leaving germs behind. I told her to forget about it, but she insisted, so I found a rag and some powder and started cleaning the sink, but she wanted to do it herself. She worked for ten minutes, getting every nook and cranny—the bits under the parts of the faucets that turn, the curved edge of the overflow valve, the stem of the stopper.

“I know you think I’m crazy,” she said, as I stood there watching.

“No, I don’t.”

“Yes, you do.”

“I just worry,” I said, uncrossing my arms.

Still bent over the sink, she turned to look at me; she had to tilt her head because her glasses had slid halfway down the bridge of her nose. “I just want you to know, I’d do exactly the same thing if I were you,” she said. “I mean, if I had a mother who I thought didn’t have all her buttons, I wouldn’t let my
child get too close either.”

Ironia, New Jersey, May 1966

The trees are just starting to come into leaf—it’s early May. The sky is construction-paper blue, the clouds at the horizon lofty and bright as meringue. The border of this photograph has yellowed and there’s a large fingerprint—a closed-loop type—in the upper left corner. There seems a quiet stateliness to the scene, although I realize this is just the way time translates the glossy finish of old photos. Standing in my grandparents’ driveway, between two taupecolored sedans, my mother, in checked pants and a dark sleeveless turtleneck, holds a new-born me. My face is a pink blot, her arm a white bar.

There were tornado warnings out of Chicago the day things fell apart once and for all with Tracey, and my mother started driving East.

“How appropriate,” said Mark at breakfast, which was funny, sort of.

On long road trips, my mother just sleeps in her car, at truck stops. She says she’s friends with the truckers—not speaking friends, but driving friends. She understands their habits, and they like her because she knows when to get out of the way. Truckers, she explains, barrel along at a really good clip late at night. She doesn’t give them a hard time about this, the way some drivers do. She acknowledges their need for speed, and simply moves over to the next lane.

My mother hasn’t always been such an acquiescent driver. I remember once, when I was about six or seven, she got impatient at a tollbooth. She’d flung her quarters into the plastic basket, but the orange-and-white striped barrier wouldn’t lift. She honked her horn several times. This honking was long and loud and seemed wild, somehow, dangerous. It frightened me, or embarrassed me—same thing to a seven-year-old, I think. Still, no one came. She tried to back up, but there was a line of cars behind us. So she honked again—once or twice—then floored it. The barrier splintered against our windshield with a crunching sound, breaking into a dozen useless shards. Even now, the memory of this splintering amazes me with its utter impossibility: it seemed like backwards time, like anti-gravity.

Englewood, New Jersey, ca. 1984

Someone’s lying on the couch—it could be any one of us: my father, my sister, or me. It’s impossible to say because whoever it is has thrown an afghan over his or her head and upper body. Only the legs are partially visible, clad in grey jeans, and the feet, in black socks. The whole scene is drenched with silent hysteria. At least, this is how I see it. The couch is hideous—a big, tufted, suburbo-colonial thing with huge sprays of mint- and salmon-colored peonies on the upholstery. There’s an empty vase on the floor propping up a framed charcoal drawing of my mother. On the end table is a school portrait of Tracey at about thirteen. Her hair is flipped back in intricate layers, her teeth grey
and complicated-looking with braces. There’s a chessboard on the coffee table, a couple of books, an ashtray, and the candle-chimes we took out around Christmastime. The idea for these was that the heat from four small candles would send a little brass angel spinning over a set of brass bells. With the tip of his trumpet, the angel would strike the bells one at a time and make a steady tinkling sound until the candles burned down.

The night my mother left Chicago I felt lonely. Or sad, or depressed. Usually, I try to make these distinctions, but that night I couldn’t tell which one it was. After Sylvie was asleep, I asked Mark to sit with me while I took a bath.

Earlier that day, Tracey had finally reached her limit and put all of my mother’s things out on the sidewalk—she’d kicked her out, in other words. Mark and I had spent much of the day on the phone with various persons (Tracey, my mother, a clerk at a bank, some random neighbor my mother had
drawn into the drama…). At one point, my mother called to ask me to speak with a police officer who was “harassing” her by making it impossible for her to pack her car.

“He believes everything your sister says. You have to tell him she’s the crazy one, not me! Tell him how warped with anger she is!”

So I spoke for a few minutes with an extremely disgruntled cop, explaining that my mother was unstable, but that it was important that she make it to Boston, where she has doctors who know her.

“That’s what we’re trying to do,” he said. “But she’s using stalling tactics.” He started to enumerate these tactics, then excused himself. Things got muffled—he must have put the phone down, or held it pressed against a palm. Still, I could hear my mother’s voice in the background, and the mounting
tension of their exchange, which culminated in the cop’s saying, “Would you please just get out of that bed!”

Mark and I had been quoting this line—the one note of humor in an otherwise miserable day—to each other all evening. He said it now, when I was in the bath, but I didn’t find it funny anymore.

“Anyway,” he told me, “it’s nothing new. She’s always been like this.” He was sitting on the lid of the toilet, holding a bunch of bills he wanted to pay. “She was like this when we brought her up from New Jersey. She was like this when she was living with Ruth. She was like this the first time I met her.”

“What did you think when you first met her?” I asked. It’s not as if I haven’t heard my husband’s opinion on this matter before, but I need to rehear it every so often. What is and what isn’t, when it comes to my mother, is something I just don’t trust myself to know. The story’s ancient, now, but I still wanted him to tell me about how shocked he’d been at what he saw as a sudden and relentless attack. It was her normal form of greeting me, then, and I was used to it, although I hardly endured it passively—I screamed, and insulted, and swore my hatred right back. But I still believed the things she said.

Over the years, I’ve found methods of convincing myself otherwise, means of believing that the things my mother used to say to me are not true; that I do not, in fact, speak or look or sleep or flirt or work or smell or hold my body in infuriating, embarrassing, even repulsive ways. There are tricks that help: one of them is to try to see myself through other people’s eyes. And one of them is to try to see my mother through other people’s eyes.

But that night, Mark said he was worried about the bills. I said “fine,” although I didn’t mean it, and when he left, I sniffed each of the four soaps lined up on the edge of the tub. These come from a fancy store on Newbury Street, where Sylvie and I go every other month or so to pick out fizzy bath “bombs” and shower gels and these chunky, bright-colored soaps that smell strongly of lemon or violets or patchouli… I held each bar close to my nose, but last night they all smelled like wax.

Bergenfield, New Jersey, ca. 1973

My mother’s sitting on the front stoop of the house with pink shutters, smoking a cigarette. I know this is an unpopular opinion, I know that, sartorially speaking, this period is generally considered the most depraved in human history, but most people don’t have my mother’s taste, and the things she wore in the 70s were really gorgeous. I’d pay good money, a lot of it, for the blue jeans she wears in this picture, for instance—jeans she altered with a bottle of bleach: uneven splotches and dashes and dots of white are scattered all over them. The top is cute, too: a scoop-necked T-shirt with tassels dangling from the collar and both sleeves. She smiles behind a pair of oval, gold-rimmed eyeglasses. I wore those glasses when I was in college. They were the wrong prescription and made the world seem underwatery, weirdly gelled and condensed. But I thought they made me look elegant.

Things in Chicago started falling apart when my mother threw a can-opener at Tracey’s boyfriend and hit him on the head. Tracey’s boyfriend is a bit of a baby (I don’t mean this in an entirely metaphorical way; he’s twenty-three—twelve years my sister’s junior), but supposedly my mother conked him pretty hard, and he got a nasty lump. “He was seriously disoriented,” said Tracey. She called the police and when they came, they found my mother naked and uncooperative in the bathroom. They took her to a psychiatric ward at a hospital named, oddly enough (considering my mother’s heritage), Swedish Covenant.

“Your mother says she’s had every diagnosis in the book,” the doctor told me when I spoke to him on the phone at one point.

“That’s pretty much true,” I said.

“She’s very belligerent, and seems fairly disjointed. Has she always been like this?”

I told him I didn’t think so. I told him I couldn’t tell. I told him that when I was a child, for instance, I saw my mother in an entirely different light. He said he understood.

Randolph, New Jersey, 1958

Her hair unevenly chopped—there are wings and chunks and random wisps—my mother poses for her fifth grade portrait. There’s something feline in her face—in the upswept cheekbones and the wide, tapering eyes. Her gaze is direct. There is still some trust in it. This photo is small—one-and-a half by two inches—and printed on especially thin paper. There’s a cigarette burn at the right-hand edge of it, and a tear running from the left, across my mother’s face, to her shoulder. A scribble of green ink on her temple. When I look at the girl in this photo, I feel like I’m trying to grab something in a dream.

“All dentists, as I’m sure you know,” says my mother, “are vicious psychoassholes.”

She describes her medical problems—which are endless and various and highly unusual—to me over and over, in great detail. Mark says he doesn’t know why I listen. I don’t, either, except that I sometimes imagine it might help. I imagine that by talking about my mother’s “medical” issues, I’m really helping her to talk about what her father did to her when she was a child. I’m fairly sure, however, that she doesn’t think of it this way. In any case, there are certain recurring themes, endlessly repeated scenes that she describes, the worst of which concern her in the bathroom, alone with her body, finding things, weird things, that she saves in plastic bags: grey jellies, tiny, sponge-like balls, the broken tips of needles…

“Of course, I always wear rubber gloves,” she tells me. “I live in fear of giving this thing, whatever it is, to somebody—you, or Tracey, or, God forbid, Sylvie.”

Once, when she was still living in Chicago, I called my mother in the morning.

“I have an appliance in my mouth,” she said. “Can I call you right back?”

Many hours later, sans appliance, she did. She told me all about her day, most of which she’d spent in the bathtub.

“Kimberli,” she said, “I am so infested with something. Some kind of fucking parasite. I think they’re in my blood.” In the bathtub, she’d expressed the glands all over her body. Many, many thin, undulating, hair-like organisms came out.

“There were a ton,” she said, “I mean a ton from the Bartholin’s glands.” She had already explained to me the anatomy of the Bartholin’s glands: they are located on either side of the vagina. Although I felt frightened by what my mother was telling me, I made an effort to speak as calmly as possible when I suggested that the things she was describing bore a creepy resemblance to sperm.

“I know!” she said. “It’s so gross!”

I said that it seemed possible, even likely, that there was something psychological going on. “You know, something about your father…” She assured me that the same thought had occurred to her, and this is why she’d been so careful to perform the many experiments she’d performed on these squiggly little things that kept swimming so maddeningly out of her reach. She’d wanted to be sure that they weren’t just “some kind of tricky lint.”

In a Department Store, ca. 1973

Santa’s totally drunk or on drugs or something, nodding out. His identity card says “2-12324 Miles to the North Pole.” I’m only seven or so, but already I seem completely unconvinced by the whole deal. Tracey, on Santa’s other leg, appears deeply troubled by something. Maybe, on top of everything else (the closed eyes, the slipping beard, the sweaty face), Santa has bad breath—my sister’s nostrils are flared, her upper lip raised in just such a way as to suggest this. We wear matching beige tights and turtlenecks, matching plaid jumpers with intersecting bars of olive and brown. I remember those jumpers. They itched like hell. But they were very cute—our mother made them. She was (no doubt still would be, if she put her mind to it) a very talented seamstress.

“Just having some trauma . . . with Mama,” said my sister’s cell phone message. She made the two words rhyme.

The original plan had been for our mother to live with Tracey for just a couple of months—only until she figured out what to do next. But she wound up staying with my sister in her small one-bedroom apartment, complaining about the dog hair, and sleeping on the good mattress, for over a year and a half.

Before Chicago, she’d gone through four living arrangements in under a year. The first of these was an apartment share in a condo on the South Shore of Boston. My mother and her roommate—who owned the condo, and who kept wine in the dishwasher and inspirational slogans on the walls and fake flower arrangements on most horizontal surfaces—had a lot of arguments around the issue of air-conditioning. After a while, these arguments degenerated to the point of “violence” (the quotes were my mother’s, the accusation her roommate’s) and the police got involved. My mother was evicted. Mark went down to help her pack, under police escort, one afternoon, and she told him she’d never been so humiliated in her life, which isn’t true.

The last living arrangement before she left for Chicago involved a complicated live-work situation at a Bed-and-Breakfast in a fancy resort town on Cape Cod. My mother was supposed to help with the inn’s computers, but one of them broke her first day on the job, so instead, she siliconed the bathrooms. This is a long-standing specialty of my mother’s, and she has often urged me to learn the art of siliconing bathrooms. It’s a big time-investment—you have to clean every speck of mildew, then make sure everything is bone-dry before carefully applying the silicone (the transparent kind that comes in spray-bottles) in a thin, even skin over every surface. But she claims it makes life much, much easier once it’s done.

“Your mother cleaned one of the bathrooms for three weeks,” the innkeeper complained to me when it was all over. “I didn’t want her to clean the bathrooms.”

Randolph, New Jersey, ca. 1951

Squinting into the sun, about three and four years old respectively, my mother and her sister, Karen, sit outside on a wooden chair. Karen wears a white pinafore, my mother a plaid dress with a lacy bib and puffed sleeves. Things have been carefully arranged for this photograph; the chair’s eyelet skirt, its placement out of doors, the bow in my aunt’s hair all speak to this.

So why is it that whoever took the photograph staged the scene in front of an abandoned bus, headed downhill, its front end hidden in some woods? Not far from the bus is a strange construction, maybe about fifteen feet high. I don’t know how to describe this—it looks like it might be a turbine or some kind of large generator, haphazardly boarded up with big white planks. Whatever it is, it is not photogenic. My mother is eating something.

For years, whenever I looked at this photograph, I didn’t see the bus or the weird whatever-it-is in the background, only the lace, the grass, the trees, the two tanned little girls—not exactly happy. Still, for some reason I assumed my mother was eating something extremely delicious, and that the deliciousness of whatever it was must have been the cause of her look of intense concentration. One day, studying the photograph more closely, I realized that she’s eating a potato, a raw one, to judge from the tautness of its skin and her grip on it, chomping into it the way you would chomp into an apple.

I’m sure I’d still see an apple there, despite the oblong shape of the thing, despite its dusky skin, except that once, while cooking dinner with my mother, I noticed her pop a slice of raw potato in her mouth. I’d never seen anyone eat raw potato before, and I had the notion that uncooked potatoes were mildly poisonous, the way potato leaves are, or potato skins, if too green. My mother seemed flustered when I asked why she’d eaten it, and in the offhand, somewhat aggressive way she adopts whenever she feels the roots of her poverty showing, she told me she’d eaten raw potatoes the whole time she was growing up—that raw potatoes were often the only snack to be had, and sometimes they were dinner.

“Try it,” she said. “It’s not bad.”

Sometimes, when this nerve gets touched, something in my mother quietly snaps. I saw this once my freshman year in high school. I’d brought a friend home, a girl from a wealthy family who immediately sussed out the fact that I didn’t want her to see my room, of which I felt ashamed because of its garish metallic wallpaper, stained carpet, and bent-up Venetian blinds. She saw it
anyway, just walked down the hall and peeked in.

“It’s not so bad,” she said, reporting back to the kitchen, where my mother and I had been waiting, without speaking, for her return. “You shouldn’t feel ashamed.”

My mother, who was making chocolate chip cookies, said, “She’s not ashamed.” Then she tossed an eggshell over her shoulder. It landed on the floor with a soft, surreal little splat. “She’s not ashamed of anything,” she said, tossing another one.

Soon afterward, my mother made a special project of decorating my bedroom. The garish metallic wallpaper was replaced by two variations of the same tasteful floral print. The room was filled with crown molding, chair railing, heavy, custom made drapes, faux antique furniture, and two beds with
identical handmade lace coverlets, at the heads of which masses of pillows had to be “carelessly” arranged every morning. I had a fake antique telephone, a brass reading lamp shaped like a tulip, an uncomfortable little chair covered in silk damask.

Down the hall, my sister’s room was dark and smelly, but not in a bad way. The wallpaper was the same stuff that came with the house, a beige-y corduroy. Tracey had Doors posters on her walls and a stereo with headphones. Whenever our mother showed anybody the house, she would linger over my room, pointing out the two subtly different wallpapers and how they tied in with the carpet, being sure to mention that she’d made the pillows herself, and paid someone an exorbitant amount to do the drapes.

“That’s Tracey’s room,” she would say, motioning towards my sister’s door, which was usually shut and stayed that way.

Whenever my sister stayed at a friend’s house overnight, she would let me sleep in her bed. I loved her room, it smelled like Cheetos and spilt chocolate milkshakes, broken pens’ leaking ink and my sister’s sleepy body. It felt private. It was also further away from our parents’ bedroom than mine.

One night when I was about fourteen and Tracey was away, I was asleep in her bed when my mother banged the door open. She was in her nightgown, her hair was a mess, her large green eyes wild with rage.

“All right!” she shouted. “Where is he?”


“I heard you in here, the bedsprings, where is he?” She marched over to my sister’s closet and looked in there.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. “You’re crazy.” We fought, then, at the top of our lungs about whether or not she was crazy, and about whether or not I was a sneaky little slut. “Why don’t you check under the bed?” I finally asked, my voice rich with righteous sarcasm (in fact, I hadn’t
even kissed a boy yet). She cocked her head suspiciously at me and narrowed her eyes in that you-think-you’re-so-smart way, then walked over to the bed, dropped to her knees, and lifted the dust ruffle.

I forget how this ended, if she ever apologized, or, more likely, if I apologized to her. But I do remember trying not to toss or turn or make any more noise that night. I remember arranging my limbs very carefully on my sister’s soft, lumpy mattress, and waiting, without moving, for sleep.

Ironia, New Jersey, ca. 1969

The flash is a diamond-shaped flare in the blackness of the picture window. Heavy drapes are tied with tasseled cords, but these are the only high-tone touch. All the whites in this room—the drapes, the “sheers,” the walls—have a dingy quality. A wooden chair is jammed up against a rickety TV stand. The floor is tan linoleum patterned to look like wood grain. I’m sitting on the stripy couch. I loved the stripy couch—its good square cushions, its textured lines of green and gold. My arms are crossed over my chest and I appear to be giggling. The soles of my shoes barely extend past the edge of the cushions, which makes me about three, and puts the date of this photograph around the time of my
mother’s first suicide attempt.

In real life, my three-year-old life, there was no foreshadowing. There were only things as I knew them, and then there were things afterwards—it only took a few minutes.

She cut her wrist several times with a razor blade. The scars are still visible as thin white threads, but I think the act was more about getting attention than actually dying.

“Narcissist’s delight!” a therapist of mine once said about this kind of suicide attempt: the horizontal wrist-slashing. “They should name a sandwich after it.” If you really want to kill yourself, she added, you have to go vertically, and deep.

I remember the paramedics—two brusque young men who appeared annoyed by the whole situation. I remember standing in the hallway by the bathroom, looking through or past the legs of many frantic adults. I remember jumping up and down, I remember shouting because the paramedics were
wrapping the wrong arm in a long white tourniquet.

“Shh,” one of them told me. “This is how you do it!” It wasn’t until I was nearly twenty that I told this story to somebody—to Mark.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “It must have been a dream. The part about the tourniquet.” I realized, of course, that he was right, and I felt a thin, airy vertigo. For so many years, I’d remembered those paramedics with such utter clarity. Their names were stitched in red on their shirt pockets. One of them had a mustache.

My mother tells a story about how she escaped from the first psychiatric hospital she was ever brought to, the one she went to the day she cut her wrist. This story involves a snowstorm and a fur coat. I know for a fact that my mother did not own a fur coat when she was twenty-one, but it makes for a good story, one in which both her pluck and natural glamour are on display. In this story, my mother trudges through dense white swirls, wearing nothing but this fabulous coat and an old pair of canvas sneakers. In this outfit, she makes her way to the nearest public phone, which happens to be at a gas station, and there she places a call. But my father doesn’t make the expected rescue. Instead, he contacts the hospital, and she is brought back in.

I have no right to this next image. I mean, it’s pure invention on my part; a bit of imagining so often recalled that it’s become a kind of memory—a mental fragment of the past, of what I understand the past to be—and somehow I’ve seen my mother this way for years, for decades: back at the hospital, she sits in a pool of sunlight. She’s in the common area—there are other people milling around, but she sits by herself, staring absently into the streaming sun, playing with a strand of her hair. She is thinking that there are ways out of everything. Thinking that even this might one day make a good story. With enough distance. With certain victories behind her. With a little tweaking.

Note: some names, including some place names, have been changed in the interest of privacy.

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