Sunday, December 17, 2006

Gather Around, Stepchildren
(Early draft of the beginning of a new story)

My mother told me that I was sensitive. She said it like it was a problem and it was. It usually led to me having awful dreams where I did terrible things and felt awful about it all morning. And when I did something wrong in real life, (if life is more real than dreams, which I doubt) I’d apologize and apologize. And rarely did the person remember the instance that I was apologizing for. “Linda, it’s fine. I didn’t even note the sarcasm in your voice,” my friend might say. And I would calmly assure them, “Well, that doesn’t make it right. And I’m sorry.” And like the shampoo instructions say, I would repeat and repeat until done. But who can tell when something like that is done? I, for one, can go on washing my hair over and over again forever. Is there really any harm in making things extra clean? Of course, I would learn later there were troubling issues of compulsion and overcompensation there. But I was a child then, and I’m just now learning to forgive myself for how overly deferential I was at times.

My sensitivity made my childhood eventful and my teenager years unbearable (my Senior class elected me “Most Tearful”). And in my adulthood it has blossomed into a full-blown career. After college, I spent a year seating people at Coco’s, helping everyone from the cooks to the customers with their personal problems. It was satisfying and useful to me, not just because I learned quite a bit of Tagalong. It was a sad goodbye when I had to quit to begin pursuing my PhD in Psychology. I gave everyone my email and when I get messages from the old crew in their broken English (is it appropriate to call it a Pigeon English? I don’t know, especially since the way they do speak our language does have the same tone as birds cooing) it reminds me of the good old days and a Prime Rib Special that was neither prime nor rib.

Now, three years into my practice and with nearly eight percent of my student loans paid off, I decided to give myself my first vacation. Two weeks off in the beginning of December. Not the end of December, even the lay-est of men knows that I would be inviting suicide after suicide if I scheduled my vacation then. I began informing my clients of my impending vacation in August. And by October I could mention it without getting all teary eyed. My clients assured me that they would be fine. Assured me like they had any idea what was really going on in their heads. I was the professional, and I had to constantly remind myself that my mother was entirely narcissistic and had born me just to have a slave to project her worthlessness upon just to stay sane. I couldn’t imagine what those poor people were going through. If I was sexualized as a child the way half of my clients were, I wouldn’t be alive now. I promise you that.

So December 1st comes, and I’m free. Free to be spontaneous and alive and normal. I didn’t even make one plan because just for once I wanted to know what I would do if I could do anything. By 9:30 AM my backpack was filled with water and pre-prepared foods from Trader Joe’s for my trip to the local arboretum, which I’d been neglecting like a painful, recurring, shadowy image of a frightful character from childhood in a dream, when my phone rang. It was my personal line, so I thanked God. No client emergency, yet. I answered it hoping it might be some friend, an ex-classmate or an intelligently handsome man whom might be misdialing from his town car with some spare time and a hankering to explore some native trees. I had more than enough water for two, if the person on the other side of the line had a similar bodyweight, plus or minus ten pounds, or would carry the bag if I stuffed in another liter.

“Hello?” my mother said, on the other side of the line. She was whispery; dry sounding.

“Oh, no. What’s wrong?” I said. If she doesn’t sound enraged or at least miffed, I know there’s something extremely wrong with my mother, at least something she’s conscious of.

“It’s Stephen (her husband); I can’t take it. I need to come stay with you.”

And there were all my plans or non-plans out the window. No wandering around my loft aimlessly, naked, listening to Alanis’ first album and sipping wine of some fresh squeezed juice combination I’d never imagined in my life. No hours in a bookstore investigating what would happen if I confronted some of the more attractive men who stared at me, coyly like I couldn’t read their filthy minds. No wandering through downtown, conjuring ethnicities in my mind and then turning a corner to find a museum celebrating that exact ethnicity’s cultural heritage.

My mother was coming, and it would have been better to be working. At least then I would have an excuse to leave her alone for a while. But she knew I was on vacation. She knew this was the perfect time to have a breakdown, and she was on her way.

When I opened the door, she pointed to her suitcase. I hadn’t seen her without makeup in decades, not since her ERA campaigning in the early 80s. She was earthy then. Now she was disturbing, blemished like the carpet of some form of public transit. And she seemed worn down and extra-wrinkly from her one-hour plane flight and pair of fifteen minute cab rides, which had her at my door by noon.

“It’s terrible,” she said, as I tried to find the handle on her suitcase so I could wheel it in. It was impossibly heavy, as if she’d brought with her enough water to last her a month. As I struggled, she wandered into my house, forcing me to recall any mess that I’d left, any decorating fau pauxs that she might invent; she is color-blind, I’m convinced, but she’ll never admit it. “Brown, blue what’s the difference?” she’d say. “It still looks like it’s from a Taiwanese brothel.”

“Am I supposed to sleep on this couch?” she shouted back at me.

“We can have the front desk send up a bed,” I answered back, snappily. Instantly I regretted my snarkiness. Years of training had led me back to a reflex defense, the pathetic sameness of my childhood. I wanted to curl up into the fetal position and cry. That I didn’t was my victory for the day.

It was an easy day to find a highlight for. After she insulted everything about my home, we spent every second of daylight inside, watching the E channel and ordering Chinese from the same restaurant twice. She wouldn’t move off my favorite corner of the couch as she repeated the same facts over and over. Menopause, especially at its end, was a nightmare, deviously mentally and physically painful at the same time (narcissism). Like it was designed by men to punish the female body for all of its obvious advantages (paranoia). Her husband was a snake, but the only man in the world who interested her (histrionics). And as he got closer and closer to receiving his generous inheritance from his mother, nearly ninety-eight, he became more and more interested in other women (greed). At first it was tolerable, but as it became public it was too humiliating for her just to use as an excuse to pilfer his bank account (acting-out).

“He brought some tramp to the Schecter’s grandson’s Bar Mitzvah, said it was his assistant. Like telemarketers have assistants! We were fighting, so I went to the house in Indio for the weekend. He shows up anyway, with a woman described by most of my mah jong group as having semen caked all over her ample, mostly revealed bosoms. That’s an exact quote. Donna Schecter still has her way with words. She’s in advertising or market research.” When my mother found out about that major humiliation that she didn’t even get to experience in person, it was almost the breaking point. She stayed in Indio for weeks. She’d call me every three or four days. I’d start talking about something personal about me and that usually got to her to say her goodbye, “I have to take off my makeup and cry.” But it was when she drove home this very morning to meet the worker who was going to remove all the cottage cheese from their Valley House’s ceiling that disaster struck.

“His check didn’t clear,” she said. “This poor, little Mexican man, Pablo, has to ask me for cash before he could start work.” She called up the bank and learned that he the money wasn’t pulled it out in a lump sum. It’s just slowly eroded throughout the year and wouldn’t be refreshed until his trust fund paid out around the first of the January. “That was the last straw. I had to send Pablo away, his dozens of brown children probably starving because of Stephen. And I decided right then that I’m not staying in that house, looking at that corroded, diseased ceiling another day. I’d rather sleep on your bed.”

That’s when she told me that I would take the couch.

She needed her suitcase by her bed on my loft and that required some real ingenuity. It was ten feet up, so I looped some belts together and connected it the suitcase’s handle. Then I climbed the ladder and had her throw one end up to me. I pulled it up, using the railing for leverage, misplacing several lesser important vertebrae. The whole time she’s cursing me for living in a loft, telling me that I should have just joined the Navy to live in a submarine if I wanted to punish myself. As I struggled in my tug-of-war against her possessions and gravity, there was one point where she was standing right under the suitcase. Each wheel would have taken out an eye or an ear. No court in the world would convict me. Everyone she’d ever met would testify for me. But I gave I yanked and wrenched and got that impossible piece of crap over the rail and let it drop. “Careful. Careful! Your gift is in there. Make sure it’s on the right side of the bed please.”

“That’s where the wall is.”

“You’ll figure it out.”

That night I was woken up every three hours by the sound of her raving into her phone, obviously leaving messages for Stephen. Meandering, sermonizing voicemails that would be erased before they were ever heard by anyone but me. Luckily I was an expert and noted the words she used, like “pierced, stabbed, eviscerated, seared, butt-fucked.” All metaphors of specific and bizarre torture that were followed by increasingly desperate pleas delivered in a baby voice that she had never used in my presence before. It was an astounding study in bipolarity. If she were in my care, I knew exactly which Psychopharmacologist I would refer to her. The one that specializes in children, generally. Some Ritalin and generic Lithium would make her bearable, I knew it. If only I was able to prescribe drugs, we might be able to have a real relationship.

The next morning I woke up before here and laid perfectly still studying everything in my apartment item by item. As I did, I realized how much I liked myself when I was alone. My Oriental lamps, the doilies under everything, the posters of John Hughes movies in French and German. All of my quirky choices, my subtle individuations that made me “me”, made me proud. I felt in some ways I was colonized country that had rebelled and created a democracy, but still we paid homage to our old colonial queen out of tradition and reverence to a cultural ritual. We couldn’t completely sever ties, mostly because we knew the details of the three divorces and six or seven excruciating breakups our Queen had endured since we were occupied. We didn’t want to be one of the bad colonies that abandoned her and denied her a royal visit in the distressing times. Especially since she had paid for our undergraduate degree and the deductible on our last three car accidents. Still I knew that I couldn’t be more different than her. She was a snorer. A codependent. A Demagogue. An addict of some sort that I hadn’t discerned. Her visiting me was a sign that I should be proud of myself for no reason other than I had not become her.


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