SIX BLOCKS APART
I don’t know what my mother wants from me. I mean, I’m almost 40, and I still can’t figure it out. Sometimes I think she’s bipolar or something: one day she’s spilling over with joy and affection and the next, she’s closed up like an oyster.
She’s been after me about helping around her apartment. It feels like every time I see her, she’s got these pleading eyes like she’s helpless or old or both. I don’t think 57 is old. She’d be so much more competent if she just took better care of herself. I’ve run out of empathy because I see her still smoking and just flat out refusing to do any kind of exercise. So, her back hurts – big fucking deal – whose doesn’t?
She’s got excuses for everything, always has. I sound angry. I don’t actually feel angry but shit, I’ve got my own life and kids and work, and I’m choking on everyone’s needs. My mother’s dripping kitchen faucet doesn’t make the cut.
And then there are the guilt trips: a finely honed technique she learned from 12 years of Catholic school. She’s perfected this look that screams “you’ve disappointed me again”. Just put her in a habit, and she could easily be mistaken for Sister Mary Shame-On-You.
When my phone vibrates, and her picture comes up, I feel an outrage I can’t quantify.
“Mark, honey, I bought this (insert whatever thing she bought for whatever inexplicable reason that she now realizes she cannot assemble) and I can’t figure it out. Can you come over and take a look at it?”
“Did you look at the instructions?”
“Of course. I can’t make sense of it.”
“I did. But I don’t have the tools to put it together.”
“I left that toolbox at your house.”
She falls silent; the phone lines an echo chamber of recrimination.
I should probably just do it. She lives so close; I could walk the six blocks to her apartment and have it done in 30 minutes. But I don’t. Her increasing helplessness infuriates me. And the neediness: she’s now worse than my 3-year-old.
This is the same woman who dragged me across the country at the age of ten to start a new life in Seattle with nothing but our shitty Goodwill clothes shoved into Hefty garbage bags which we stuffed into the trunk of our tired old Ford Escort. I remember my dad’s twisted and forced half-smile as we pulled out of my grandparent’s driveway. I watched him disappear through the back window of the car as we drove away. I can’t recall how she convinced me that moving 3,000 miles away from everyone I loved was going to be a positive life change. Maybe she didn’t say anything. That wouldn’t surprise me. However she managed it, one thing’s for sure: It took a lot of grit and moxie to bust us out of that lifeless stagnant town and roll into a whole new future on bald tires.
And it wasn’t terrible. It took some time, which felt like an eternity to me then, but by High School, I had made a few friends and dug myself into our new home.
She was a tough disciplinarian when she was sober. It was ironic, the things she flipped out about.
“You’re SMOKING?” she screamed, after finding a strange pack of cigarettes in the kitchen cupboard.
“What the fuck does that mean? Whose cigarettes are these?” she yelled, grabbing her lit Newport from the ashtray with one hand while waving my pack of American Spirits in the air with the other.
“They’re not mine. I swear I only tried a few. It was gross. I’m not going to smoke, mom.”
“What happened to the little boy who used to nag me about smoking? I thought you hated it!”
“I did. I do. I’m not going to smoke anymore.”
But I did, for a while. I just got a lot better at hiding it.
And I drank and smoked pot and took some other drugs. And I was excellent at hiding all of that too. It certainly helped that she was busy with her drama. She took a couple of “vacations” in rehab. She stumbled into an absurd relationship with a freak of a married man who moved in with us for a year and tried to convince us both that he was an aspiring punk rock star. I was probably the most concerned about her during that year because she hadn’t been in a relationship since she left my dad and she was behaving like a drugged out 13-year-old girl in the throes of puberty. It was embarrassing. There were things I heard in that little two bedroom apartment that I can’t unhear.
After she had strung together a few years of pretty stable sobriety, the remorseful inquests began.
“Do you remember when I (insert whatever heinous parental transgression she might be remembering as she navigated the 12 Steps)?”
“You don’t? How is that possible? You can be honest and tell me!”
“I really don’t remember.”
Conversely, she didn’t seem to remember the things that had meaning for me.
“What happened to my baseball card collection?”
“Huh. Well, it must be in the basement?”
“No, mom. You said that the last time I asked. Try again.”
“Are you sure I didn’t give it to you?”
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
We kept up this charade because she couldn’t admit that she lost them. I think I’m still pretty pissed off about it. I mean, it was a collection.
Unexpectedly, I fell in love – crazily, insanely, blindly and fatally in love. It shocked the shit out of me. I was such a nerd, such an awkward guy. Girlfriends, romance – it all seemed unattainable. Somehow this beautiful, smart, sassy girl liked me. Then loved me. Then married me.
It turns out, this was the one time my mother was totally NOT disappointed in me. In fact, I sometimes felt she loved her more. They quickly became “girlfriends.” They liked the same music, same clothes, same hairstyles. My mother’s high school graduation picture, which sat in an ornate frame on her bed stand, looked eerily similar to the prom pictures I took of my girl.
Things between my mother and I changed. We drifted a bit further. That’s not terribly unusual. A man gets married; he turns his attention to his wife. And the perks of this partnership kind of ameliorated my apathy toward my mother. I felt peripheral, and that wasn’t a bad thing. It was no longer my responsibility to remember birthday gifts and cards and Christmas presents. My wife, ever so resourceful, answered all the desperate calls to fix this or pick up that or put together those. I felt unburdened and guilt free. My phone no longer felt like a terrorist.
We became parents –she became a grandmother. There was so much joy to go around it felt like we had been washed clean, like absolution. More than birth, it felt like a rebirth.
As a grandmother, my mother was a revelation. In any stretch of my imagination, I could not have known that she would absorb this role like the rising sun engulfs the dark sky. Watching her with my son, long forgotten and nebulous images of my own childhood joyfulness would surface without warning.
They were all so in love with each other, that it was easy for my mother to miss the gradual disintegration of my marriage. I didn’t talk to her about it. I didn’t even accidentally talk to her. I didn’t know how to tell her that the one thing I had done that pleased her was falling apart.
Now I’ve got baggage and confusion and more than a little chaos. There are details to work out and legal concerns and financial snarls that crash into my dreams nightly, depriving me of the relief of sleep. And in addition to all this, I have to worry that as she gets older and less competent her needs are going to surpass any interest I might have left to help. She’s like a job description that I have to sign when I know I’m not the qualified candidate.
I try to imagine what it would have been like if we’d never moved those many miles away. In a picture I have from the day we left, we both look so young and earnest. We are leaning against the car. Her arm is around me, and I am snuggled into the curve of her lean hip. There was a connection there, then. Something was developing. But she tried to move us closer together by putting distance between who we were and who she wanted us to become. Now we live six blocks apart and it’s too far for me to walk.
Trisha Kostis is a writer and Chef who spends the bulk of her time running a misfit crew of cooks and servers in a Seattle food establishment. When not creating dishes that diners can insult on Yelp, she is writing flash fiction and working on a short story collection that she previews to her grandchildren for their candid appraisal.
Her essay “Parts Unknown” is published in the June issue of Into the Void. https://intothevoidmagazine.com/
“Freud in the Kitchen”, a non-fiction essay on restaurant life, will be published in the June issue of the 45th Parallel. http://45thparallelmag.com/about
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