Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
It was a hot windy day when I saw my mother again. The weather, for some reason, was always extreme when she came back into my life. And she did come and go more often than she remained.
After Cape Cod I didn’t know if she could get better, and so I was happy when she appeared on the observation deck atop the Empire State Building, a place familiar in pictures to almost everyone in the world, but not quite of the city, not mine anyway. I remember the view, of course, and especially the weather, because it seemed unusually oppressive. In the 95 degree heat, enormous anvil clouds, known to produce tornadoes and heavy electrical storms, hung over the gray-blue grid that made up New York.
Nine months had gone by. Three hundred thirty-four days. Except for three brief phone calls and a few perfunctory notes passed back and forth through Flora, my mother’s cousin who took care of me while she was hospitalized, I hadn’t had any contact with my mother at all. As a result, I had been quiet all morning and practically mute on the way uptown, though Flora had no idea why. My head was beginning to hurt. And to make things worse, the taxi driver braked with a heavy foot.
From the skyscraper, with its security guards in attendance, not one hustler, priest, sucker, or con could be seen to the naked eye. None of the reef creatures, as I called them, could be found so close to heaven. I stood uncomfortably among the squeaky-shoed angels from out of town, thinking about what I would write in my notebook as soon as I got home.
The city had its faults. So did other places around the world. You come face to face with human nature when you are a child alone, which I was more or less. I read books with an orphan’s eye. I watched myself crossing the street. Ate alone in the lunchroom. Survived adrift. Held my own hand when I needed a friend. I did my homework, made the beds, put away the towels and the dishes, and then escaped into the pages of diary. My ideas filled seven notebooks by the time my mother was sane again. I wrote:
I want one day to visit someplace else, but not with any hopes for a better way of life.
The Chinese live to eat, and the food’s got to be good, or they won’t touch it. They eat just about anything dead or alive, except cheese, on a regular basis.
Beside this entry, I pasted photographs of things in a Chinese grocery, and listed
(pigs snout, antelope antlers, rotten eggs, frogs’ legs, chicken feet, pork belly, hoof, brain, duck tongues, shark fins, bird’s nest that is held together with bird spittle, and several types of mushroom that resemble dried umbilical cords.)
And some lesser entries:
Clothes hung on the lines between the tenements can be read like the coded flags of a ship at sea. The story goes as the clothes unfold. (Bibs and tiny things in pairs = Baby born; Embossed T-shirts and running shorts = Son goes to college; Cotton blouses replaced with silk blouses = Mother gets promoted. Pink sweater with threadbare elbows is gone = Grandma dies.)
And (Flora told me)
The hospital is clean and meals are served three times a day. They regularly comb your hair and change your sheets, and a doctor looks in on you every week. My mother will soon be wearing a watch, I should think. Like everybody else, she will compute the hours in a day, go to sleep at night and wake up before lunch. Without trying, she will know what month it is.
Flora’s face grew solemn, but not from the heat, as she spoke to me in the elevator on the way up to the 86th floor. “Your mother has been looking forward to seeing you,” she said. I watched her from the corner of my eye. In sunglasses, she looked elegant in a dark red skirt and white cotton sweater set. With her pearly white skin and cranberry lipstick, her tiny hands and dark eyes, at the end of which a stroke of liner flipped skyward, Flora was a modern-day Snow White. She practically pushed me out the door to the observation deck.
I told myself, Make a note in your journal: (Flora can be a bully.) No don’t.
Just the same, I seriously wondered if the arrangement of the meeting place had anything to do with the likelihood that I might act up or pull out a revolver and do my mother in. This made sense considering Flora’s love of tragedy. When she wasn’t reading romance novels, she read books about Armageddon. And of all the chapters in the Bible, she especially liked the Book of Revelation. Her mother called daily to go over the misfires of the relationships on her beloved soap operas. Flora made a point of getting me out of the house whenever her mother was coming over. As if, after her sister’s death, her niece’s story, which no one had dared tell her, would be the episode to put her over the top.
I glanced through the crowd and found my mother standing by the south wall, taking in the sun. She wore white sandals and a loose summer dress of blue Indian cotton. A hot heavy breeze was moving her hair around, planting her skirt against her body. When she saw me, she stepped back, cutting her head off at the neck from the direct sun, darkening her expression in the shadow of the great skyscraper. Without the glare, her blue eyes pulled open, and I saw her hair was longer, parted in the middle, and darker, but only by a shade. She looked younger, or slightly softer around the edges, having gained a little weight.
I brushed the hair out of my eyes, partly out of disbelief, and partly to relieve the urge to stare. When I was close enough to touch her, I noticed she wasn’t wearing lipstick, or eye makeup. No earrings or jewels. The calmness of her features, the slightly arched mouth, her magnetic eyes and perfect nose, reminded me of the plastic statue on Flora’s dresser, not of the Holy Mother, but of Christ minus the beard. She looked down at me.
She didn’t throw her arms around me. She didn’t smile, but she also didn’t blink. “Hello Beth, I missed you,” she said, reaching out, just like that. She lowered her face, kissed my cheek, and took my hand. Her fingers were ice cold. I stiffened, taking back my hand.
“You do remember me?” she said with sugarcoated sarcasm. Looks can be deceiving, I thought.
Flora, who was standing behind me, intervened. “This is normal,” she whispered to my mother, gently placing her hand on my shoulder. “It’ll take time. She missed you terribly,” she said, smiling, the flight of her eyeliner like a tail feather, thrust up. “Beth prayed for you every day.”
That was a lie, and my mother knew it. We didn’t believe in God. I was hardly on speaking terms with Him. And my mother, she didn’t believe in anything that didn’t suit the moment, and the moment never called for religion. Just cool cash and a car full of gas, and now, it appeared, a little sugar powder.
Flora prompted me. “Don’t you want to ask your mother how she’s feeling?” She had hoped it would go much better than this. Before we left the house, she had given me a hug and asked me to be kind and to forgive.
There seemed to be an impasse, not a rift or divide, but something blocking my mother and me. Each of us had something to lose, though neither of us could have said what. We had been close. Too close, I had heard Flora tell someone over the phone. “She was just 17 when she gave birth,” she said, telling whoever it was about my mother. “I don’t think she’ll ever get over her mother’s death.” Flora wanted to see tangible results. She believed in doing good, had done so and expected something to come of it.
“Come on Beth, don’t be mad,” she said, her fingers poking my side, almost tickling me, forcing me to succumb.
My mother held her arms open. I caved in, embracing her. Her body felt round and warm, so different. My head tucked neatly into her shoulder that was quickly soaked with my tears. I felt my hair being stroked. The buttery smell of her skin filled my heart. I was surprised by my emotions, at how deeply I had yearned for her.
“You’re almost too big for me now, aren’t you?” my mother said, her voice cracking. She kissed the top of my head and leaned back, looking into my eyes, spreading my tears like cookie batter across my cheeks with her thumbs. Briefly, she seemed satisfied. Then her expression changed. “What have you done to your hair?”
I kept so much to myself I could have joined the Secret Service. I had begun to menstruate. And with that, every 28 days, I chopped away in the middle of the night at what might have been a lovely mane. In the morning—I bit my lip when I saw the damage and left the house with a hat pulled down over a vigilante’s face.
“You’ve been cutting it yourself, haven’t you, baby?”
My mother was waiting for an answer. Flora was squinting, tasting something acidic. For the sake of drama, I had surmised, she kept an unloaded gun in her bedside table. I pictured her shooting me when we got home if I didn’t answer promptly. (Not really.)
“It’s my hair,” I said quietly, turning my back on them, looking out over the railing at the Statue of Liberty.
My mother grabbed my shoulder angrily. I bit my lip and rolled back my eyes. I was outraged. I thought I had control of that. The kids at school had made fun of it.
“Why do you do that with your eyes, honey? It’s very aggravating.”
“She didn’t do that with Joe and me,” Flora stated flatly, realizing only then how her words might be taken. Joe was her boyfriend who worked at OTB.
But it was too late. The color drained from my mother’s face. “Answer me, Beth,” she said opening up her throat. My eyes were free agents. They did what they wanted. My mother growled. “Stop it, Beth,” she snapped, raising a hand. “Stop it, you hear me.”
Flora’s hand shot out in time to catch my mother’s before it was too late.
My mother would’ve jumped from the ledge if she could. No one took my side against hers. Flora had humiliated her. “You don’t know what it’s like having a child like her,” my mother seethed. “She’s the problem, not me.”
Hate, something hissing in my heart. “Why did you come back?” I screamed, breaking free, running around the corner of the observation desk and then all the way to the New Jersey side of the tower. You’re a bastard and your mother’s a loon. La la la. She belongs in a nut house and so do you. The kids at school never let me forget what one of their mothers had found out.
I found a coin-operated viewing machine and pretended to look through it. My stomach was twisting in on itself. If I could have, I would have made a dash for the elevator and never looked back.
Flora came up behind me and squeezed my arm. “What’s the matter with you?” she said under her breath. “You know you’re not the only child whose mother got sick.” She was referring to my grandmother, who died of cancer.
Dry-eyed, I looked up. “She hasn’t changed.”
My mother came up to us. She waited a moment before she spoke, and then she apologized. “I’m sorry. It’s my fault. Your eyes are your own,” she said, gruffly, touching my arm. “Let’s get out of here. I can’t stand places like this. Neither can you.”
I don’t think she’d ever said she was sorry before, and it stunned me. As we got off the elevator on the ground floor, my mother looked at me sidelong. “You still writing in your diary?”
She knew me after all, and I knew her. We were both more comfortable at sea level.
I glared at her. “Yeah.”
“I should’ve known,” she said smugly, looking at Flora, who was happy again and glad to be on the way home.
While we waited for a taxi on Madison, Flora braved the crowds, maneuvering her place in the line for a cab. The sky darkened and it started to rain. People scurried every which way, trying to keep their heads dry. An umbrella vendor appeared to rise from a manhole. My mother pulled me under a canopy and scanned the scene. Then she looked down at me, glancing at my hair, her face falling ever so slightly. “What I wouldn’t do to have your hair.”
In the thick humidity, the metallic smell of wet cement and dirt saturated the air. I wondered just how she was going to make a living. She looked like she needed new clothes, a hairdresser and a good face cream. I wanted my own room, a set of lavender sheets and a featherweight bed cover. I had seen a magnifying mirror with a light bright enough to see every pore. I needed new shoes and clothes for school. I wanted a telescope and skin-diving lessons. I was about to ask her if she had been in touch with her old boss when Flora pulled up in a cab. We got in and drove off. The cabbie, a fat bald man wearing a plaid polyester shirt, peered at us in his rearview mirror.
“You girls look like you just got into town,” he said with a friendly tone.
My mother leaned toward the front seat. “I just got out of a psychiatric ward. I haven’t seen my baby for nine months and this lady is dating a man in the mob. You want to know more?”
“Keep it shut, Lane,” Flora said.
I laughed. Be kind, I wanted to say, forgive.
The cabbie shifted uneasily in his little cage, releasing an oily odor through the grate.
I took my mother’s hand and held it. She smiled at me tensely and within seconds found an excuse to take her hand away. Payback, I thought, for taking my hand from hers.
(Diary Note: This is the way it has always been. What made anyone think it would be different? It is important only that we begin exactly where we left off.)
—Constance Christopher was born in Ontario and studied in New York, New Guinea, and Nigeria before returning to New York to work in the television and film industries. She is currently at work on a novel titled Teaching the Bird to Fly and a collection of stories called Part of the Truth and Other Stories. She has published a novel titled Dead Man’s Flower (Paperjacks, 1998), several short stories, and a personal essay on volunteering at Ground Zero. She lives in New York.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
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