At my mother’s, Luke and I smile over hands of cards. When our feet touch under the table, we speak through them. Most of the contact we have is to further communicate our unhappiness, but when we’re with my mother, it’s as though there is comfort in the heaviness of hers, outweighing ours. We are fixable our socked feet seem to say, but she is sick and slowly losing herself.
On the train, Luke clips his nails. Half moons shoot to the floor where I cover them with my shoe. “You’re a slob,” I tell him.
Across the aisle, a man inserts a long pinky finger into his ear canal and wipes what he finds there on the seat beside him. Luke holds out the clippers. “Put these in your bag, will you?” he asks.
A man further down the car picks at the cuticle around his big toe. His feet are fitted into yellow flip flops, the same cheap, drug-store kind my mother used to wear to water her plants. He brings his thumb to his mouth and gnaws the skin there, then spits into his palm.
Sitting next to a stranger could be worse, and if I stand or ask Luke to let me pass he will say, “What? What now?”
Without agreeing on it out loud, Luke and I walk through my mother’s dry garden and into her house as different versions of ourselves.
Kindness comes easily there. We each fill a role: Luke fetching beers from the basement, my mother microwaving things and encouraging us to eat, me smiling, washing dishes, dealing seven cards over and over until it’s time to go.
When we leave she gives us a blessing: “She’s watching, you’re safe,” my mother says, talking about god, or herself.
When I consider my life, I can divide it in half, and that is the half that is make believe.
If my life has become a series of things I force myself not to do and things I don’t let myself do, I can sort it into two columns drawn on my notepad. But then I make the columns into a box, adding squares because there are also the things I have no choice but to do and the things that are required of me. There are things that pile up on top of me and those that I can’t control. There aren’t exact words for this, so I don’t write any. I scribble more lines, erase everything, reducing the rubber to dust, and fold the paper as small as the paper will allow, then shove it between the seat and the window.
My mother will call me late at night to say that she’s lonely.
“You’ve forgotten about me,” she’ll say.
“How is that true if we’re talking now,” I’ll say.
“It just is.”
“I’m glad you called.”
“I know, but I don’t like it. I hate it,” she’ll keep going, her voice whiny, like a child’s.
“We were just there. We just saw you. Didn’t we have fun?”
“You don’t know anything about me.” She will go silent after this and then it will be my voice growing needy and small.
“Mom, I love you. It’ll be okay. Mom? Mama? I can come back soon. Sunday. Tomorrow.”
“I can’t remember what you look like.”
“Get the photo album and find me, I’m there.”
“You’re not in it,” she’ll say.
“Well, it’s not like I’ve disappeared,” I’ll tell her.
“Maybe if you weren’t so much alike,” Luke says, “it would be easier for you to understand her.”
He opens a book. Presses his knee against mine. Which is to say, I don’t want to end up with your mother. I cross my legs in the opposite direction, which is to say, these are all things I know. I’m not blaming her. He grabs my kneecap, which is to say, relax you’re getting worked up and pulsing there under his hand, I am saying please understand me.
“It’s not her fault,” he says finally, turning a page.
It doesn’t always have to do with Luke. This will be easier to write about. Maybe I can get into it that way. For example, if what I wanted for lunch was a tuna sandwich with pickles and hot sauce, I wouldn’t eat it. Having this sandwich would ruin my breath, so I’d eat ham and cheese instead.
I hate ham and cheese. I hate how ham, when left to its own devices grows slimy in the refrigerator and that the only cheese Luke and I can agree on is tasteless and yellow. Why don’t I eat this sandwich for dinner or as a snack the moment I get home? Why instead, do I sit at my desk smelling what everyone else is eating, feeling sorry for myself? Why do I have to make everything so fucking complicated.
It’s in me to be this woman who brings liverwurst and onions on rye and brushes her teeth in the bathroom with a travel toothbrush. I want to find her and give her permission to floss in public. I want to say fuck it, not brush for a week and let my teeth grow furry and thick with plaque; to be toothless and fearsome and grin wildly at children. What I mean is that there is a dry-wheat ham and cheese hovering over me. That I am trapped. That Luke doesn’t even like hot sauce.
I rehearse things to say to him in my head. Clip your nails anywhere but here. Let’s get a sandwich. I already am my mother. We are ruining each other. I will go down the same way she is, slowing forgetting everything and hurting you with the things I do remember. I’d rather you smash each of your fingers with a hammer so the whole nail falls off and I don’t ever have to see them again. I never really wanted to lose my teeth. That was just something I said.
Melissa Swantkowski lives in New York. You can find her here: melissaswantkowski.com.
See Melissa’s 5 Things You Should Read in our ongoing contributors’ series.