Days of the week, if it’s night or day, reasons to get out of bed, reasons to go to bed, how to butter toast, the names of my children, my name, your name, your ex-husband’s name, the caregivers’ names, why to say hello to someone you’ve known for fifty years, when to laugh at a joke, where the bed is located in the room, what to do with a hairbrush, why there’s noise coming from the television, who the people are in the photos on the bedside table, where I live, where you live and why you live there, how to wash your hands, how to put on socks, how to cross a threshold from one room to the next, how to light a cigarette, how to get up from sitting, and how to take off your pants.
I thought about not telling my mother that after living together for more than 20 years, my husband and I were calling it quits. Then I thought of telling her casually to see if she still understood familial connections, to see if she could feel my pain vibrating, radiating, imbedded in my bones. Maybe if she knew, she’d say something, anything, to assuage it.
I was visiting her at the place in West Hollywood and I remember we were sitting on the lawn chairs just outside her door. There was a kind of urban patio with a gazebo and some trash cans hidden behind withering plants. There was local chatter and the noise of fast cars from Fairfax.
She was still smoking back then, so she lit one up and exhaled. She asked me for the third or fourth time that day if I’d been working. Yes, I assured her, I work every day. I’m a college professor.
She was always very excited by that idea. “Your father would be so proud,” she’d say, smiling on his behalf. A few minutes later, she’d ask, “Are you working at all?”
Yes, I would nod.
“Terrific!” she’d say.
This all happened around the time she was sure she could see my son across a concrete parking lot. She was certain she could see him playing soccer “in those fields over there.” Hallucinations became frequent. The TV was communicating with her about some fires and other disasters that “weren’t a volcano.” This took place shortly before the evil Russian psychiatrist put her on a drug that ruined everything.
But that’s for another time.
This was my window in which to tell her about the fracture in my life. So, I began explaining that my husband and I had grown apart. I think that was the phrase I used. That’s often code for we wanted to kill each other. But it was, in our case, the truth. We had grown apart and decided to separate. We didn’t want it to happen, but it happened.
So, I said all that and then waited for her response.
Finally, Pat said, “So, he’s not around anymore.”
“No,” I said. “He’s moving on. We’re hoping to end up friends. He still comes by to see the kids. He’ll visit you.”
“Oh,” Pat said. “I’m sorry to hear that. And you can’t see a counselor or something?”
“No, no… We’re probably going to get divorced.”
She didn’t look too upset, more confused by this confession.
“You okay?” she asked, smoothing my hair.
“Sort of. Not really, mom.”
“Marriage is really something,” she said, as she pat me gently.
She reached to hug me and I could smell her maternal scent. It was the smell of my childhood, the smell of safe and of home. I held back tears.
We’d left the door to her room open and the neighbor, who wore a bubblegum pink T-shirt and matching Gilligan’s Island-style hat, popped her head in. Each time I’d spoken with this neighbor she had announced some relationship she had with Flea and The Chili Peppers. Her daughter might’ve been married to Flea, or mothered a baby with one of them. It wasn’t clear.
“Dinner time!” the Bubblegum Lady yelled and kept walking towards the dining room.
“Ready to eat?” I asked my mom, feeling relieved to finally share my news.
By now she’d finished her cigarette and was about to hide the stub in the pocket of her jeans. “Sure,” she said. “The food here is the pits. Sure.”
“I can walk you down the hall, get you settled with your table mates and then I’ll go make dinner for the kids,” I said.
My mom nodded, and gave herself a dab of lipstick before I placed the bright green elastic bracelet with her room key on her wrist.
Then she turned to me with a familiar grin. “Where’s your husband? The big guy? I haven’t seen him in a while.”