We have spent fourteen days in the new apartment.
During the evenings, my mother stands at the kitchen counter and cuts packing tape with safety scissors. She empties boxes and begins cataloging her belongings according to their worth. She re-opens envelopes holding birthday cards, wedding invitations, notes of congratulation and bereavement, handwritten letters. Sometimes she’ll call me over and read select bits of them out loud. That’s from Pamela, you know, from the company. This is from my old psychiatrist. Billy Kelly from Birmingham. Granduncle in the Canary Islands. Look at how this starts: Dear Carmen, your little girl is beautiful… The names and words bring me the nostalgia of familiar dog days, of lawns and tiles, drives and forests behind apartment complexes. Often they come with soft images and smells rather than concrete memory. Tina’s protruding blue eyes, the carpet around a fireplace, quiet. Sometimes, if the memory is a good one, if the sender is a good one, my mother smiles. She will even tip her head back for a moment, eyes closed, losing the sick tension, for once. Then my mother puts both hands on the paper and tears it in halves, and then in fourths. She offers no explanation, tossing the pieces in the trash as she does the empty cardboard boxes and the sweaters shrunk in our new washing machine. It was hard not to flinch, at first, but I have learned.
We have driven to IKEA twice. The first time I was struck not by the amount of stock or customers, but by the number of babies. Infants held against the breast, the back, in arms, sleeping in strollers as a mother and father debated over sofa cushions. They looked up at the paneled, light-filled ceiling with steady and unthinking devotion. Did they mistake it for the backdrop of the hospital where they were born? Did they return to that sudden and pivotal time of blood, humidity and love? Did they start anew?
On the way back, my mother drove fours hours in the dark. Mi cerebro no reconoce el cansancio de mi cuerpo, she said. My brain doesn’t recognize the tiredness of my body. I craned my neck, looking for her expression in the light of passing automobiles, but that curve of cheek and steady hand could belong to anyone. I stared at her as a young child would, searching for a mark to know her by. Where are you, mother?
The second time, my mother tried to make the same return trip on one fill of gas. As the needle dipped close to empty, my mother called to me. Her voice can give the space around me form and structure wherever I am – even when I am curled up in a car, caught between a dying radio, black mountains and the poisonous nighttime. I took off my safety belt, something I once nearly slapped my brother for doing, and wrapped my arms around the seat immediately in front of me, the seat my father once occupied. Should I stop? she asked me. We are close to empty. I knew that if I told her to stop, she would. Instead, against all proper judgement and reason, I said: go. You can make it.
My brother has cried once. Don’t believe it, I whispered to him. You know the truth. He allowed himself to be held, but only for a few minutes. When he lifted his head he was calm, but not expressionless. In his face, in that small face, I found the still and unassuming bravery I have needed for so long. I have taught my brother the alphabet, the difference between a diphthong and a hiatus, multiplication of fractions. Now, I try to teach him to survive, I try to teach him the truth, only to find that I am the one who still needs teaching.
We fight, my mother and I. At first it was often, but now it is only occasionally. We argue with one another as angrily as ever, but we do it while sitting at the table, drinking breakfast tea, or while washing the dishes. These healthy, domestic scenes give us a sense of order and responsibility. Sometimes we forget we don’t want to hurt each other, and we fall into the old roles. I am the lithe and disdainful villain, and she the towering specter, baring her teeth. But mostly we are good. As simply as children, we have made peace with one another. Even the bad guys have something to protect.
I think of what I want for us often. I picture us taking the subway to the movie theater, the three of us standing in a circle, shoulders touching, packed in close together by the weight and substance of strangers. We buy stale popcorn and orange soft drinks, we rush up stairways, we arrive a little late but nab perfect seats. Quirky, heroic characters, rolling streets where teenagers meet to construct secret bases, soundtrack that lilts and booms at all the right places, killer lines spoken by poor delivery men and gunslingers against bucolic scenery, deaths in the arms of the schoolboy who swears revenge, absolutely no romance – we see the film that my mother will remember as being “beautiful”. We take a taxi cab home, and my mother is talking and smiling, she is laughing at the bits from the movie my brother reenacts. Every once in a while, she turns to look at us in the backseat, and I can see her clearly, even in the dimness. I recognize my mother, my true mother, half a century old, hands touching her knee, her face, smiling and shaking her head: the best of the scores of women she has been before and will be. When I recognize my mother, my lofty skepticism and system of cruelty leave me, if only for a short while. When I recognize my mother, I am reminded of the worth of this day, of all days. No, I do not live for her. But I do live because of her, in more ways than one.
The moving men and my mother position a bookshelf slightly to the right. Why don’t you put it in the center? I ask, standing in the doorway in my pajamas. I want that space for flowers, she says. I think of the flowers in our old apartment. They died from neglect in no time at all, the wooden flower boxes rotting in the rain. My mother makes a sweeping motion with one hand, gesturing towards the entirety of her home, all the walls and children who have made her their caretaker. I’m going to fill this entire place with flowers.