The Distance You Have to Go
New York Stories. Summer 1998
When my mother is well, people can be mesmerized by her. Her eyes give off this pointed light that makes her hazelnut face look defiantly radiant. The smallest, most inconsequential movements of her hands and fingers have the energetic grace of a gazelle. Her skin is not that shiny plastic skin of suburban sitcom black people, who shop at different malls but all end up with the same patterns on their clothes, but it is not dull and unhealthy like poor people's either. As a child, I remember watching white salesladies and cashiers fall into a momentary stupor as they stared at her long fingers reaching for her wallet, extracting the money, offering it up patiently like she was doing them a favor.
But it hadn't been like that for a long time, ever since we'd moved to New York six years earlier. She says it was me: the older I got the more trouble I gave her about our itinerant lifestyle. I don't doubt it. I hated always having to start over every year with a new school, sometimes even more than one. But moving to New York was as difficult for her as it was a relief to me. I relaxed easily into the puzzles of people and buildings, into the stream of color and sound, while my mother resisted. She still wanted to be special, to stand out like she had in the hippie love nests, or in my father's eyes. But here in New York the effort that goes into announcing yourself is just not worth it. To set your mind on sticking out in New York is dangerous; it can run you into the ground. Sometimes when I got home from school I would find her crying and singing. She would be cradling one of her feet, trying to rock it to sleep, breaking her strange lullabies to yell at my father for dying.
Like the first time Nicky was supposed to come over for dinner. I came home, struggling with two bags of groceries, only to find my mother slumped on the floor, gripping a foot in one hand and a bottle of unopened cranberry juice in the other. I pulled back for a moment when I saw how clearly her bones showed through the back of her gauzy beige dress, and then I made myself reach for her. "Mom." The ribbon of vertebrae quivered and I took the juice from her hand and put it quietly on the kitchen table. I picked her up and helped her to a chair, letting her light bones rest against me. "You're lucky your daughter can still carry you," I joked.
"Can't open it, can't open it. It's on so fucking tight," she moaned. I began murmuring her name, "Lydia, Lydia," and moved the bottle of juice behind a roll of paper towels on the counter.
"I'm such a fucking snake. No legs at all. No hind legs. Oh Lord, how can I get me some?" When my mother started talking to God, I knew I could only wait for it to end. "Yes, Mama." I smoothed her hair away from her face; her mouth snarled back at me.
"Remember what I told you, Haijuan? That women are the hind legs of the elephant? Well, this one has no legs at all. This elephant is blind because it has no legs!"
It is the survivor's ability to descend into quiet deep waters when the surface grows rough and choppy. I needed to be watching my mother from a long way under, watching her lips, their darker edges filled with a lighter mahogany, their demands muted by the density of a thing that swelled and receded between us. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and willed a screen, an expanse of water, between me and my mother.
"I'm on the floor, I'm on the floor," she wailed.
"Stop it, Lydia. Stop it," I said. "You're sitting down. You're okay. I'm here."
"If I had legs, I could walk," she sang. "If I had spirit, I could fly . . ."
"You have spirit," I said. "Lots of spirit."
"But I need legs. You have him now. I need legs."
I went up to her, lifted her chin and tried to stare firmly into her eyes. "You have legs."
"I need legs!" she shouted in my face and then descended out of sight. She moved quickly, crawling round and round the table like a mechanical doll gone awry. I watched her circle the table a few times, the delicate fabric of her dress bunched up above her knees and the hem line started to rip. When I couldn't stand it anymore, I went to my room, put some things in my black canvas bag to take to Nicky's, and sat on the bed in the dark listening to the muffled sounds of my mother's bones connecting with the floor and the occasional bump of her body hitting a chair or table leg. I don't remember what I thought, but I made sure it was slow and steady.
"I'm on the floor," she wailed suddenly. "I'm on the floor!" I moved fast then down the short hall to the kitchen, but I didn't run. I bent down and she clasped me around the neck as if she were drowning; her body swung from my neck as we struggled to a chair. Then she sat still, looking small and forlorn in one of the high-back carved pine chairs against the wall. Her face hung out from her body, her jaw clamped and nostrils flared but her eyes blank. She looked like one of those masks in the books on African art she still occasionally buys me. I thought of one in particular: the Nunuma frightened gazelle mask, a heavy colorful one with a thick, decorated snout and glaring lidless eyes. I thought of those books shelved together in my room right above my bed and felt the sting of guilt as I remembered the shadowed spaces between them where the ones I'd brought to Nicky's used to be. I thought of how Nicky had stared at the beaten bark carvings I'd shown him in these books with such intensity and interest, running his fingers over the matted surfaces of the pictures, and then looked up at me startled. Maybe his own words surprised him as much as they did me. "Let's go to Africa together, you and I," he said, his fingers still on the page. "Southern Italy, Calabria, where my family's from, then North Africa, then . . ." He looked at me and shrugged, just as confused as I was about what came next between us.
My mother was bent over in the chair, her long arms extended to the floor. Her torso strained over her thighs as she searched the floor for her feet, which remained motionless beneath the chair as if they weren't connected to the rest of her. "Mama, how come you make even your own feet hard to reach?" I asked her, trying to keep my voice light.
She didn't answer the question — how could she? — but instead sat up and proclaimed with resignation, "Your father loved my feet. Said they were the most special . . . Like an animal — a beautiful animal. He said that." Then my mother peered under the chair again and made a grab for one foot. She pulled it triumphantly up onto her lap, at last a small smile on her lips. I sighed inwardly and felt my neck and back muscles relax. It was almost over. She began rubbing the foot on her lap gently like a small animal in need of consolation. "'Butterfly or panther?' I asked him. 'What am I?' He said . . . he would say . . . 'both . . . a combination of them.' He said I was — could tell by my feet. My feet! Can you imagine?"
My father in our photos is a white man with reddish skin and a silly, disarming smile. His obsession with my mother's feet was a powerful bit of family lore. I'd often imagined the exalted moment when he first laid eyes on them: this young boy from a town of 15,000 in southern Illinois arrives in the Big City and the world is suddenly so huge, the buildings so tall and — ooh! he sees my mother's feet and his eyes travel up her corduroys to her flowered lace top and Afro and then back to her feet, which are so beautiful, so very beautiful and real, the most real things he has ever seen: the elongated bones, the delicate burnished skin, the toenails a bit long maybe, but then, of course, she would have better things to do than cut her toenails. So cool and exotic my mother's feet must have seemed to my father, coming from a town of hefty white people. I imagine that her feet were an antidote to the pitiful smallness of his previous world and so even though he married all of her, I believe this is why he remained devoted most of all to her feet. Yes, I could imagine my father's love for my mother's feet. And I could imagine her devastation when he left. Just died. Just like that. I was barely even born. How dare he? And now he was always leaving her, again and again, every time she saw her feet that way.
"I know, Mom. I know."
"No you don't." Her wail was like a long stride into a dark hall and only when I poured a glass of cranberry juice and set it before her did she come back. As she drank, she dried her eyes. Everything was all right. She said, "I love you, Haijuan. You know I love you, right?"
Later, when she was in bed, I went over to Nicky's apartment. He held my hands in his lap, rubbed his nose in confusion. His eyes were concerned. "God, Haijuan, she sounds seriously disturbed." I shook my lowered head and suppressed a smile. Nicky was angry at my mother for ruining the dinner I'd planned so carefully but he had never seen her pain. I wondered if I didn't want to keep it that way. It felt so good to have someone on my side. I gave a small laugh and said, "Maybe she's schizo, you know, multiple personalities." I could feel Nicky looking at me, wondering what to say. After a few minutes, he placed my hands carefully on the seat of his chair, stood up and stretched. "I don't know how you do it. Having one mother is hard enough." I kept starting at a frayed part on the thigh of my jeans. I didn't trust my face or my voice. I was scared of the nervous laugh in my throat. The truth is that it has always been important for me to believe that my mother is not crazy, that the parts of her join up somewhere to make a whole. Both her crying and laughing selves. We can all wear different hats, I tell myself. We can all sit in different chairs. That's how it is with her, maybe only a little more so.
Nick Buscani had been my gym teacher for two years (so we must have spoken), but the first time I can remember having a real conversation with him was the day of my high school graduation. After the ceremony, Nicky had come with a group of us to an apartment that someone's parents had tactfully deserted. It felt strange to have a teacher with us, even a young gym teacher like him. We turned out the lights and placed some candles we found in a cabinet all over the living room and cleared away the furniture and then sat on the polished wooden floor. I don't know why we did all this but it seemed like the right thing to do. Nicky sat down next to me and started asking me about my plans now that I'd graduated, and we soon discovered we'd both be working at the same day camp for the summer. I'd just been hired as a counselor for six-year olds and he was going to be "recreational supervisor" for the older kids.
"Weird," I remember saying uncomfortably. He bent his head down, showing the top of his wire-rim glasses, a tanned forehead and a receding hairline. He spread his hands palm-down on the floor and examined them intently. In the din of the room, silence settled around us. "I didn't know you wore glasses," I said after a while and when he looked up at me his eyes had changed: they were bright and grateful. He walked me home and as we talked I stole side glances at his muscled shoulders and chest moving underneath his white undershirt. That's when I first felt how he moved to a slower, more deliberate rhythm than my mother.
In the beginning we maneuvered politely around each other in the staff lounge, a tiny basement room with faded green carpeting. One afternoon, as Nicky and I were packing our things to go home, one of the other counselors made a stupid joke and we both burst out laughing. Nicky looked over at me, and then it seemed the most natural thing in the world when he leaned over and asked me if I wanted to go for a walk in the park. It was a Friday, clear and not too hot.
As we strolled along the sidewalk bordering the park, we sipped sweet, canned iced tea. Being invited to walk in the park with a man, drinking tea, it all seemed so old-fashioned — stiff, tense and lovely (that's how the past seems to me). Bushes with dark, dark green, almost black leaves, as dense as a forest, strained against the fence. Inside the park gate, we nibbled on salty sunflower seeds and meandered the looping paths.
Gradually, in response to his pointed questions, I told him about my mother. He looked up at the sky as I talked, massaging his chin, like he was contemplating a serious question. I told him about the communes and artist colonies, all the moving from place to place. Always just a bit out of town, but far enough so that I remember arriving at the communal housing building or our bungalow with road dust on my legs. I told him what I could recall about the people in these places, long-haired white people in planting aprons, the women thick and purposefully unadorned, the men string-bean thin and moody. "They loved my mother," I told him. "She was perfect. She was black and beautiful and she had me, proof that for her, 'love, man, always came before color'." I laughed then, maybe a little harshly, because he looked at me in this surprised way, and then the most beautiful sadness came into his eyes like he wanted to touch me, and he just couldn't stand it.
Sometimes it frightened me to be revealing so much to him about my mother, but words were easier than dealing with the sexual tension between us. The placement of our bodies, the space around them, it was all so charged. A brush of his hand against my thigh was electric. The measured thump of his whistle on his chest called out to me like a lifeline, a forgotten pulse.
I was sitting at the kitchen table finishing a bowl of yogurt and fruit one Saturday morning, feeling determined to try again to get my mother to meet Nicky, to face his wide shoulders and look into his unambivalent eyes, when my mother emerged from her bedroom in a kimono and a blue scarf wrapped turban-like around her head. Without the volume of her hair, she looked minuscule.
"Morning, Ma," I said.
"Morning, dear," she said groggily. I could smell her, still wrapped in sleep.
"Can we invite Larry tonight?" I asked her. Larry was my mom's oldest friend.
"What? Tonight?" She touched her face blearily. "Oh, your dinner. Nick. The famous gym teacher named Nick."
"Mom," I felt anger rising.
"I'm sorry, dear." She cocked her head and the fabric on top of it balanced precariously. "I do want to meet him, but tonight . . . no. Peter and Dodi are having a party. They've moved to Tribeca. Do you want to come with me?" She tilted her head to the other side. "Come with me. They'd love to see you." She took a sip of grapefruit juice.
I held my leg muscles and gritted my teeth against the anger. "Mom, just let me do everything and all you have to do is come and be nice." I paused, "Mom, you owe it to me."
She sighed and pushed the juice away. "I do, Haijuan, I do. I owe it to you." She came over and hugged me hard, swaying as her grip tightened.
"You just don't like that he's a gym teacher. Not an artist or something. You're prejudiced."
She hugged me harder and we rocked together. The oils she used on her skin smelled so strongly, they took the anger away. "No kidding. I am. I am." She repeated softly and stood up. "Next week, I promise. Okay? You arrange it. Okay?" I looked at her cautiously. She smiled and walked away down the hallway toward her bedroom, singing softly.
I was not a virgin and Nicky knew that without asking so we never discussed it, the same as we didn't discuss, until much later, my past boyfriends or his girlfriends. Most of my boyfriends before Nicky had been white, I think because I was more comfortable feeling "black" with white boys than "white" or "mixed" with black boys. With black boys, a sense of alienation made me feel white. With white boys and their awkward demands, timid touches and lurching, quickly squelched sighs, my body emerged beneath me as powerful — and I felt black. I had slept with black boys before, but the situations had been strange, and the act itself had seemed obscure and unrepeatable even as it was happening. As much as I don't like to admit it now, my sense at the time had been of distinct entities clashing; in fact, the way I recall, it had been from this clash that my arousal had come in the first place. But with Nicky it was different. His family comes from the far south of Italy and in the summer he looks darker than I do. He probably even has African ancestors because of all the history between North Africa and southern Italy. Or so we liked to speculate, lying on his futon with the warm breeze from the window caressing our bodies. We dug bits of information out of our memories:. he recalled an uncle of his who insisted that he was related to a 1960's African dictator. From my world history class, I remembered that African Arabs ruled Sicily in the tenth century and it was a good time for everyone there. Nicky reached down and, resting his hand on the warmth between my legs, said with mock seriousness, "Relevant, very relevant."
I loved lying in bed with him, looking down at our lovely brown skins together — mine a thick opaque brown, but lighter than his darker, iridescent olive coloring. Our tangled bodies excited me — here was so much history. We were like live coils of history, a meeting of colors each unique in tone and depth, with different sources.
That week my mother acted even more careless than usual. When she left in the morning for the museum, she'd forget her keys, ring the bell, I'd buzz her in and go back to my breakfast only to have to get up a second later to let her in again. The door would fly open and she'd rush around like a whirlwind, mumbling and singing, disturbing everything. I'd try to eat through all the commotion but it was hard. Sometimes I'd put on my Walkman. She'd lift up one earphone and kiss me on the ear and give me a quick hug around the neck, saying something like, "Thank God for you, Haijuan. Thank God you're around to take care of me. I'm so silly!"
I'd look at her and her eyes would be all watery. I saw her increased flightiness for what it was — a resistance to meeting Nicky. Here was a man who offered me a space uncluttered by her constant needs. She had every right to be threatened. I feel a little guilty now remembering it, but I was, in my own way, as desperate as she was. I kept at her to arrange a dinner date, until she finally relented and we agreed on another time, a Saturday night a few weeks away. I invited Larry too.
When Saturday came, I spent the day working in the kitchen and keeping an eye on my mother. I checked the oven, thumbed back and forth through dog-eared cookbooks and chatted with her while she ironed white shirts, one after the other, in the living room. She held each shirt up to the window before and after she stretched it out on the rickety ironing board.
"To check for spots?" I asked.
"No," she sighed, "It's just the light, the way it filters through . . . sublime. It's sublime, white shirts in the sunlight. We used to have them hanging outside in Chicago. They're wonderful to watch in the breeze. Whew! Are they wonderful to watch! Your grandma and I used to laugh together — fluttering and flapping like that in the backyard. Crazy. We'd laugh so hard sometimes."
She stopped and stared above my head, clicking her fingernails together absently. Shadowed places collected on her forehead. Only her torso was visible above her ironing. Then her eyes rested on me. "Honey. Haijuan, is this guy really worth it? I know he was your teacher and all . . ."
The thick smells of the Middle Eastern restaurant below us — layers of garlic and a spice I didn't know the name of — washed into the apartment, protecting me.
"Shut up, Mom."
She shook her head as if I were the one in need of sympathy and made an exaggerated display of zipping her lips to show that she was silencing herself.
When Nicky and Larry came and they were all seated around the table, I brought out the soup, wine and bread. Then I sat down, took a breath and surveyed the room; it looked smaller with Nicky in it. He was bent considerately over his bowl, carefully spooning the soup into his mouth. I smiled to myself. As I watched him, I realized why getting him into our apartment was such an accomplishment for me: his wide chest and thoughtful, steady gaze threatened all the delicate, contradictory lines of my mother's space. My mother and her friends created and discarded meanings as they saw fit; to settle for one, would be unthinkable, primitive. But here was Nicky with his bookshelves of used paperbacks on Eastern religions (next to his phys ed course books), demanding of the world to reveal its true nature, pursuing it with both a calmness and ferocity that I realized I loved him for.
Larry, my mom's friend, was a gay man in his forties with a florid face. I had known him since I could remember. Even before we moved to New York, he used to come to visit us wherever we were living. I don't know how he would find us, but he always did. He would come in his beat-up car, bringing me things like roller-skates and stickers to put on my notebooks. He used to come into my bedroom when my mother and her friends were outside or in the living room partying, and he would sit on the bed unobtrusively. I would be half-asleep waiting for that thing to push me over the edge into sleep, and he would just sit and smoke a cigarette and murmur things like, "Kid, the world does violence to the soul." I must have been listening during those times because phrases of his still occur to me now and then, along with the image of him sitting at the edge of my bed saying them, the dry moonlight cutting strange furrows into his body, making him look old even though he still must have been young.
Tonight he came dressed in his usual wrinkled khakis, a pink oxford, one side untucked, and tennis shoes. He broke the awkward silence by burping loudly. "Oops, sorry, kids," he said. He ran his hands over his balding head. He usually brushed the few remaining strands over the top of his head, but they had fallen to the side and hung there. My mother started giggling and soon they both collapsed into laughter. I sighed, looked at Nicky who gave me a confused shrug, and I realized Larry and my mom had probably gotten stoned in the living room while Nicky and I had been setting the table earlier.
"Larry and mom are old friends," I said to Nicky, feeling I should say something.
"Old friends. Yes we are. Isn't that true, Larry dear?" intoned my mother.
"It certainly is, angel. What — seventeen years? Has it been that long?" Larry answered her between gulps of wine and swipes at his errant hairs.
My mother hadn't looked at Nicky squarely yet, but now she slid a glance at him.
"Well, Nicky," she said, "How long have you been teaching, hmmm . . . gym?" As she said "gym," she brushed her eyes past Larry's tired blue ones, and he suppressed a giggle.
Nicky spooned the last drops of the soup into his mouth, and then, slowly he said, "Four years. I've been teaching four years." He reached under the table and rested his hand on my thigh. I felt it growing there, warm and too heavy like the guilt that followed, and before I knew it, I was out of my chair and at the sink, rinsing the soup dishes, feeling all their eyes on my back.
After dinner, we sat in the living room eating the rhubarb pie. My mother had been guarded during dinner, as I'd warned Nicky, but he was so kind and complimentary to her that the effort of withdrawal became too much for her and she opened up. She complained about her job at the museum, described for him the collages she was working on and she pulled him aside to show him her Sixties bumper sticker collection. She seemed to grow taller like a tree in bloom; her hair fell out of her wrap and extended its coils like branches. Her eyes glittered and her fingers moved quickly through the air as she began telling Nicky about my father. He listened to her, gently and patiently, and, watching them, I became aware of the hopeful energy I was incubating.
Nicky caught my eye as I was heading into the kitchen to get more coffee. As I passed him I heard him ask my mother, "Do you have any pictures of . . . your husband?" I hadn't told Nicky much about my father. He'd asked me, but I didn't know what to say. My father was simply a pre-condition of my existence. He lived, he fell in love with my mother's feet, he impregnated her, he died in a car accident. Still, he had always been an undeniable part of our daily lives: he was the part of my mother's history that she carried with her to keep the present alive. When Nicky asked to see pictures of my father, it hit me in a new way that once, a long time ago, my father had been a living, breathing person who left my mother every morning with a brief case and egg on his breath and came home with little gifts for her, like fancy cigarettes. I felt a cold wind pass through me despite the heat. I looked at Larry but I couldn't tell what he was thinking; he was shuffling uncomfortably from foot to foot, picking at his pie.
I headed down the hall to my mother's bedroom. In the dim light of her room, the overlapping rugs and the heavy wooden artifacts buzzed around me as if trying to communicate something. Truly, it gave me the creeps. I pulled out a photo album from under the night stand and hurried back down the hall, my father's ghost at my heels. Nicky asking to see my father had yanked him out of the past with a force so great I felt scared I would encounter him at any moment.
My mother took the album from me and folded herself into the easy chair next to a standing lamp. Nicky moved behind the chair and peered over her shoulder. My mother patted the seat next to her absently and reached for my hand but, without exactly meaning to, I took a step back avoiding her. I walked quietly around the back of the chair, stood next to Nicky and grabbed his hand. I tried to imagine that the three of us were just settling down to look at some family photos, and it was cozy, like in a normal family. If such a thing exists.
She looked up briefly and said, "Where — "
"Here, Mom," I said. "Behind you." She turned around in the chair as far as she could, so she could see me without tilting her head back. She gave me a hurt look but I just bugged my eyes out and gave her a silly grin. She sighed, turned back around and opened the album carefully. And there was my goofy-looking father holding a fish and wearing a floppy hat, red splotches like small apples on his cheeks. The only picture of he and my mother on that page was of them playing badminton in some ramshackle backyard with scruffy grass and a tilted net. Someone had painted the birdie and rackets day-glow orange and green and my parents posed with them laughing. At some point, my mother had colored the border of the picture with a liquid silver pen but the picture itself had faded somewhat: my parents, the rackets, the grass, the crooked foliage behind them, all tinged with a creeping brown against a graying sky.
"Look. He wasn't much to look at but, oh God, was he funny. He could make a horse laugh its saddle off. He loved my feet — used to fan them in the summer, call them royal! He was so crazy . . . I just let him."
Nicky was leaning over my mother's shoulder, his eyes intent on my dead father.
My mother glanced up at us mischievously. "Do you want to see my feet?" she asked. Nicky arched a brow at me, silently inquiring what his answer should be. Larry was gesticulating wildly; there was something in his hand — a deck of cards — he was asking, "Who wants to play? Crazy Eights? Gin Rummy?" No one responded. I hesitated a bit too long, caught between a reflex to humor my mother like I do when she goes into a fit and the momentary, paralyzing fear that Nicky might actually succumb to the same invisible charms of her feet that my father had. I said, "No, Mama, Nicky doesn't want to see your feet" at the same time as Nicky mumbled a barely audible, "O.K." My mother looked from Nicky to me and the shine in her eyes clouded over and her lips pulled together in this unattractive way that reminded me of when I was a kid and she would try to braid my hair like hers. Sometimes I would feel this meanness come into me and I wouldn't let her. She'd say, "Do you want to be ugly?" I'd rather be ugly than like you, I'd say. Usually, she'd start crying and that would make me feel sorry, but occasionally she'd pucker her lips instead, just like she was doing now. Then she wouldn't talk to me, sometimes for hours, until I broke down and cried because, I guess, one of us had to cry.
"Mama," I said, sitting down next to her, "he doesn't need to see your feet. Not right now."
She looked down at her purple clogs for a long time. I put my hand on her back; the room was quiet except for Nicky and Larry's breathing. My own was inaudible.
"All right, Haijuan," my mother said getting up, her voice recoiling in the room where her presence loomed so large just moments ago. "I'll leave you three alone." She got to the door without looking at me. She started pulling on her leather jacket before I ran to her. I'd gone further than I ever had before, but I couldn't bring myself to deny her the resolution she expected. Larry came alive again and started clearing the plates from the living room. As if a spell had been broken. I supposed he wanted to be a good friend without getting too involved. He stood a few respectful feet from us, dessert plates and coffee cups balanced precariously up his arms.
"Come on, honey, we'll go get a drink, leave the two youngsters to their fun. Or whatever it is they do." Larry made an "o" with his mouth and winked at me as my mother zipped up her jacket.
For a moment I doubted everything, the wood under my feet, the shift of the breeze above me, the spices still hanging in the air. All I knew to be true was that Nicky and my mother were two points on a line that I was tightrope-walking. It seemed suddenly that I had been suspended in the air forever, my mother a distant end point, but without something to balance her, another point of reference or possible homecoming.
"No, Mama, no. Nicky will see your feet, won't he? Nicky, don't you want to see my mother's feet?"
Nicky still stood in the same place in the living room, thumbing the nubby fabric on the back of the chair. His forehead shone under the direct lamp light and he didn't look up at me. This drama being played out around my mother's feet, of course it would be strange to him. As strange to him as it was tedious to me. I began nodding emphatically — God, what must he be thinking? — while my mother put her hand against my face and pulled me to her. The skin of her neck was soft and warm on one side of my face but her jacket zipper cut into my other cheek. Nicky's presence had given me a strength that I wouldn't have had otherwise. But I wondered now, in my mother's arms, if it wasn't a false and cruel strength. I mean, hadn't she given so much of her life to me? More than my father ever had. As I huddled there in the crook of her neck, I concentrated on the sweet old-leather smell of her jacket and on the business of being remorseful.
But even as I caved into her silent demands, her assertion of possession over me, deep down I celebrated. I felt amazed at my good fortune, at the possibilities that lay before me with Nicky, who now I was absolutely sure really did truly love me first before my mother. I squeezed my eyes tightly shut and the tears came. As I cried, I gazed at the colors swirling around inside the darkness of my mind. I stooped uncomfortably in my mother's arms and I cried, no longer contrite, but simply amazed that Nicky still stood silently by, waiting.
The next night I dreamt of a man with skin so black it looked purple in the sun. I met him on a dusty market street with the sun behind him. The glare was so bright that even when I squinted up at him I could barely see the outline of his face. I experienced a great relaxation, something flowed from me to the empty spaces around and it was gone, dissolved. I realized that my mother had no power over this man because he was blacker than her, and as I approached the man I couldn't help looking down at his feet. They were perfectly formed miniature feet — a child's feet. They looked unused. I wondered if this man was a god. I put my hand up to shield my eyes and gazed up at his face, which was now on level with mine (had I grown? had he shrunk?) and I saw that it was a grown man's with a hardened jaw, but the skin was so smooth and purple-black I had to touch it.
One temperate night a few days before I left for college, as Nicky and I lay in his bed with the moon cutting slivers of light across our bodies, he asked me to marry him. The question, and the possibilities it contained, reverberated in the space around us, between us, then finally worked its way through my skin, into my blood and bones. I lay there, the lineaments of my body heavy, but the space inside suddenly light and airless. Without a word, I climbed on top of Nicky and maneuvered him inside me and we made love so long and with such complete absorption that the first morning light creeping in the windows did not dispel the careful architecture of desire we had built, but sealed us in it, like a new home. Then, like enchanted children, we slipped on T-shirts and knelt by the window watching the sky catch on fire. Gradually, the brilliant orange and red conflagration spread over the brownstones toward us. When I turned to look at Nicky, his cheeks were glistening and I thought "husband," listening to the bold sounds of that word in my head. I thought of the sunflower seeds we used to eat in the park, feeding the squirrels, laughing and wanting each other so much. I thought of his five pairs of expensive sneakers placed carefully on the floor of his closet (the only expensive things he owned), his dark asking eyes, the terrible way he pressed his thumbs into his temples when he was angry with himself. I felt my insatiable desire to be near him, to run my hands over his skin . . . I stared at Nicky, this man in the morning light, and felt a growing amazement at how out of the heat of the summer and my anger at my mother, there had been born this sheet of love between us, as fresh and clean as my grandmother's shirts flapping in the Chicago breeze — the ones my mother spoke of that night that already seemed so long ago.
After we were married, my mother seemed irreparably shaken. When I came home from school that summer to move into Nicky's apartment, she'd cut her hair short and I noticed a lot more gray threaded through the roots. She greeted me in careless clothes. I felt a momentary dart of triumph when I saw her; then only a dull guilt and sadness. "Mom," I said to her, "you look great." It was the stupid lie of the young to the old but part of me enjoyed the conventionality of it, which, for once, with her drawn sepia face and unbraided hair, my mother was powerless to defend herself against. She has finally acquiesced to her age, I thought. She will take refuge in the invisibility of being a middle-aged black woman and I will have peace. "I will love you," I promised her graciously, all in the split second that we hugged and sat down to coffee. My grandmother from Chicago died soon after and her sister, my great-aunt Pearl, sent in relatives from nearby to visit with my mother. I had no idea these people even existed; my mother had never mentioned that we had family in the area. These women came to visit in groups — they all live in the near Long Island suburbs — and they had a collective presence that enveloped everyone around them. They were nothing like her artistic counterculture friends I grew up around. They weren't trying to be young and crazy, or desirable, or radical; they didn't seem to be trying to be anything. Pearl's daughter-in-law Shandra came over with her two daughters to clean the house once or twice (for some reason they thought this was necessary). While they "straightened up," they tossed phrases such as "Whoa, Sister!" and "Honey, pass that over here" like balls of yarn back and forth over my mother who lay on the couch apparently too absorbed in her reading to hear them. I could get hypnotized listening to their easy laughter and banter. They seemed magnificent to me in their ability to offer each other such expansive and selfless words of comfort, in a way that has never been possible with me and my mother. Maybe because of the connection I made between these women and my grandmother, I came to see them as ghosts of my mother's past that had come back to claim her — and relieve me.
My mother has accepted their friendship like one accepts doses of medicine, with resignation and intermittent attempts to be cheerful about it. But sometimes I'll see her shake her head to herself when she thinks no one is looking, as if in silent objection to her fate. That just kills me. I can't believe it but I sometimes find myself hoping that there is someone like my father around the corner, someone who will see in my mother a wild beautiful thing, and he will desire her; and she will flutter and sing for long enough to be caught again.
©1998 Sari Wilson
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