(originally published in Cenotaph)
Whenever I’m feeling close to the edge, a hairsbreadth from lunacy, I like to shop for groceries. I go up and down all the aisles, methodically picking out food. I throw boxes and jars and bags and cans willy-nilly in my cart, always stocking up for the big one, the storm that’ll tear the roof off. It’s a habit, one I learned as a child. The women in my family were bony, starry-eyed drunks, with bad skin and lank hair, but by God, they knew how to grocery shop.
I’ve fallen into this twitchy, nervous state because my mother showed up again last night. I don’t know if it was a dream: I hope it was. I opened my eyes and saw her standing next to the bed, almost touching the mattress. She didn’t smile or speak but simply shook her head. She seemed angry; I could tell she wanted to hit me. She was jealous that I was still alive, driving her car, watching her TV, wearing her jewelry. I met her fierce gaze without moving, then closed my lids against her image like hurricane shutters.
The room was so dark, she was like a column of gray smoke, rising over me. Knowing death hasn’t changed her face one bit. How is it that I still miss her? That is an embarrassing, childish pain, an overgrown mouth sucking a rubber pacifier. There will never be a second chance for her and me; I sure wish I could believe in heaven like I believe in hell. If she’d loved herself, or me, even a little, maybe she’d have pulled through the dark waters. But she was so full of self-hate there was no room for anything else. Now I’m afraid her habits are coming after me.
I confess it; often I hated her too, while she lived. I even killed her once, in my sleep. I stabbed her many times with a kitchen knife, and it felt right, like it was the only graceful way out for both of us. There wasn’t as much blood as you’d expect, though there was still enough to soak her nightgown all the way through. When I woke, clammy and trembling, I hurried to her room to make sure she still breathed. I knelt at the side of her bed, watching her scrawny chest. At first, it didn’t stir, and I almost cried out. Then I saw movement, enough to know she lived. Forever after, I feared the terrible anger in me. It’s always waiting, a tiger with ivory teeth and steel claws — waiting for me to stumble, to lose my grasp on mercy, on forgiveness, and throw open its cage.
Wishing my mother was dead half the time didn’t keep me from breaking down her door in a panic when I thought she’d overdosed. After the first incident, I wasn’t all that worried, I knew her to be too much of a bumbler, she’d screw it up like everything else. The door became only an excuse to use my rage, to make my hatred tangible, give it life, a physical existence. I used a heavy folding chair, swinging it over and over again, watching first the splintered crack appear, then the bit of light, marveling at how the door-frame itself gave way all at once and the entire door fell cleanly into the room. She sprawled on her bed, half-clothed, her knobby knees the bulkiest part of her, her wet brown eyes looking puzzled. Even with all the noise, she couldn’t figure out how I’d gotten in the room. Later, sober, she realized she’d underestimated me, she hadn’t known what I was capable of. Much later, when I left home, after a hundred false starts, she managed to finish what she’d begun.
I shopped hours for the perfect funeral dress; pulled grimly through all the racks, looking at everything dark. No, not dark, black. Nobody wears mourning black anymore, the saleslady said, but for my own mother I insisted. In photographs, I appear the proper, bereaved daughter. I spent three days wearing the black dress, feeling grimy by the day of the burial and glad of it.
We buried her in front of a croton bush, God, how she hated those things, crotons. I stared at her shiny marble urn where it sat in the little hole, the tacky brass plaque glued to the top. I couldn’t object to the shrubbery, not with the priest standing there, tall and lean and handsome like some Marlboro Man, chanting and swinging his billowy canister of incense on its copper chain, the black robes clinging to him under the harsh weight of the sun, his hand so big and hard when I shook it my knees almost gave way.
That night, I left the house long after dark, walked in shaky high heels down the street and around the corner, ruining the delicate heel tips on the asphalt. I decided to keep walking until I dropped; to walk forever if no one came running after me. I stopped only a couple of miles away, limp from the humid August air. Crickets vibrated, frogs exhaled, stars flickered; the glowing yellow windows of strangers were my last comfort, my final safe haven. Nothing but love for those strangers kept me from leaving for good, nothing but fear of the tiger kept me from going any farther after my mother; I stood alone in the velvet grief of that hot summer night, calling her name over and over again like a stupid, hungry baby.