Los Angeles, 2015
A lot of murders in the canyons, my aunt informs me as we sit down at an outdoor café with good iced tea and Niçoise salads. A lot. Were you alive for that one up on Wonderland?
That was the early eighties, I say. She blinks. No, I was not alive.
Forgive me, I forget how old you are.
The café is full. People drink rosé. It’s 2:00 p.m., and no one is going anywhere. These people are glistening with the lack of stress. It leaves me in a bit of a free fall, not knowing how to define my time. A friend living out here said, It’s a different pace. If you accomplish one thing a day—you know, one meeting, one lunch, one workout—then you’re good. I sip my drink and watch all these people accomplishing their one thing.
That was a really dirty job, my aunt continues. Those people—bludgeoned so badly. And that man, the porn star, oh God, I forgot his real name, how awful, Johnny Wadd. Though that was his—ahem—stage name.
My mother’s sister is a former district attorney of some note. She secured a few convictions in high-profile criminal cases, and those successes led to her being appointed prosecutor in a highly publicized murder trial in the nineties. It ended with a hung jury and she had a nervous breakdown. She recovered, then retired. She retained her encyclopedic knowledge of crime in Los Angeles, stories that have been told and retold at the dinner tables of my childhood, the city inexhaustible in that respect.
My aunt is disarmingly, harshly honest and has been so since I was a child. She has the posture of a ballerina, an East Coast education, and is possessed of the rarest of all qualities: discipline. When I was in kindergarten at Catholic school, she taught me the word atheist, then told me that she wouldn’t condescend to me and pretend there was a God. When I was eight, and she and I were out to dinner at the Katella Deli, she said that my father had left us all those years ago because he was a cocaine addict. I stared at my open-faced turkey sandwich for a moment before looking up at her.
What’s cocaine? I asked.
A drug. And your father’s a commonplace addict. I would lock him up if I could.
It was the same tone in which she had told me, perhaps the same year, while we were baking poolside at her house in Palm Desert, that the problem with sex is that it feels too good and makes you crazy.
When I was ten, she gave me The Catcher in the Rye. When I was thirteen, Justine by Lawrence Durrell. Before she adopted in her forties, she seemed to me childless by choice, and deliciously free because of it. She made all her own money and drove a Mercedes, too fast. Obviously I worshipped her. She was the only adult I knew who didn’t drink, which led me to believe early on that she was the only adult I knew.
Yeah, they made a movie out of this murder, I inform her. Starring Val Kilmer. My aunt dislikes media depictions of crimes that were—to our family—personal. They never got the facts right. The actors were either too pretty or too ugly.
Do you mind if I have some wine?
You drink at lunch now? Is that considered sophisticated where you live?
I shrug, gesture around me. The line between her eyebrows is disappointed, watchful. She minds. Never mind, I don’t need it.
Didn’t Val Kilmer get fat? Anyway, I knew the DA that tried that case. He came up to me in an elevator once and said, ‘I’ve never lost a case.’ I looked at him and said, ‘What about Wonderland?’ He was a real idiot.
Did you watch that one about Bob Durst?
Watch it? No thank you, I lived it. The police on that one—morons. That was Benedict Canyon.
Stevie Nicks lived in my house, I say defensively. Or someone from Fleetwood Mac. At least that’s what they told me. How many landlords in the canyon could correctly identify a former New Yorker who cannot resist the allure of that fairy-tale bohemia? That’s one LA story. My aunt will not be deterred from hers.
They were all drug addicts, that whole music scene up there. She takes a bite. A lot of mental illness. It’s actually quite sad. And of course, Cielo Drive. Did you know your uncle watched the Manson trials? He was second chair, still a law student, and he sat every day, thinking, what a mess. These people are evil. And they were. Just evil. That was also Benedict, that way. She gestures west toward Beverly Hills. Far. But not that far. She signals the waiter for a refill. You should invest in some curtains. How’s the writing going?
All these years she’s been asking me to move back, and this is the shit she talks about at lunch.
Long Beach, 1989
The children who stayed at day care until dark had stories to tell but lacked the voices to tell them. St. Hedwig’s was a Catholic school, so divorces weren’t as common as the national statistics, and those of us coming from “broken homes” were acutely aware of how different we were. Most of the other moms didn’t work. The staff handled those of us who remained until dinnertime gently.
A car door would slam in the parking lot, and I’d lose focus on whatever I was drawing or painting or gluing, my entire body alert to the sound of her high heels on the asphalt. She’d appear in the doorway, nothing like the other mothers who never had to dress themselves: smudged faces, skewed ponytails, sweats, minivans, packed lunch sets. Her legs shimmered in her nylons, which she shed like snakeskin the moment my younger sister Christina and I got home. She hemmed her skirts an extra inch, Because I’m short but my legs are long, she informed me. Those legs appeared, then the rest of her, in silk skirts, blazers, camisoles, or button-down blouses. Then the eyes, bright (my eyes, she would say while considering my own), and her youth, wafting off her like Chanel No. 5. She never looked tired to me, but I can see it now: how her posture had wilted by day’s end, when she still had to feed us, bathe us, read to us, sing to us, sleep with us. She was twenty-nine, a barely glorified secretary clerking her way through a thoughtless, uninspired forty-hour workweek, and never intended on being a single mother to us. But when she arrived at day care in her professional regalia, other left-behind children stared at her, jealous.
I already knew she was fragile. There wasn’t enough space for her to hide her pain. Crying while she balanced the checkbook. Panic attacks while driving us. Crying on the phone with her mother. Berating our absent father on his answering machine. One night she fell chasing him out of the house and twisted her ankle. She sat on the lawn crying, and my sister and I ran to her. I remember my fear as she tried to get back up quickly. How she gripped her ankle and sat down on the lawn, defeated, curling into herself to weep. Shortly thereafter, I went through a phase where I practiced calling 911, hanging up when I heard the passive voice. I wouldn’t even let her go to the mailbox alone.
When my mother and aunt asked me to explain my actions, I said, When you don’t have a father, and you have a baby sister, you have to be in charge when your mom falls down.
It’s gross and total, the way I can feel the tug of my love for her. My protectiveness. Her skirt hems, her Chanel purses, the cigarettes and hairspray. Clutching at her, shrieking for her if she disappeared for even a moment, running to her when she came into any room, done pretending that I was strong, independent, or cared about anything else. I know what it’s like to be claimed by the most beautiful woman in the world. She was mine.
My father told me that he and my mother met as undergraduates, at the foreign kids’ table during lunch at Loyola Marymount University. I can’t quite piece together what they were both doing there. My mother was fluent in French and Italian, my father in nothing. Were they loners? Were they itching to escape the South Bay where they grew up by surrounding themselves with kids from elsewhere?
There is, unfortunately, a likelier story. My aunt recalls that they met at my mother’s boyfriend’s apartment in Manhattan Beach—he being a very well-established coke dealer in Los Angeles in the seventies. The last I heard of him, my aunt recalls, he was serving a twenty-year sentence. The apartment—I imagine—had views of the ocean. Mirrored surfaces that make cocaine shine. A terrace where my mother could smoke and stare at the horizon, which is what—I imagine—she’s doing that day when my father joins her. The two of them brushed powder from their noses, ran tongues over gums, introduced themselves, chattered in a fast-forwarded, intimate way.
What did you love about him? I asked my mother when I was a teenager, wondering if I had missed some central story that would make their animosity toward each other logical. Beyond a transaction related to one of his visitations, I never saw them spend more than five minutes in a room together.
He was handsome, she said, edged. He didn’t age well.
That’s it? Really?
My mother sighed. He gave me you girls. Isn’t that enough?
I asked my father, What did you love about her? When we were living together—I was sixteen years old—I had gotten to know him somewhat, how intolerant he could be of women. I couldn’t imagine him being able to stand her.
I was young, he said, and cleared his throat. I remember there was a lot of pressure.
That’s not an answer about her.
She was a good mother.
When you were little, he says.
My parents locked me out of whatever feeling provoked them to choose each other. Their passion and pillow talk and how they imagined their future. Things I hope exist or else the entire enterprise is too sad.
I used to scour photographs of them for clues, wanting them to make sense beyond the well-mannered expectations of marriage. They traveled together. My mother studied in Rome, my father at Oxford (where—he once told me when he was fucked up—he had gotten a girl pregnant and had to skedaddle when she wouldn’t get an abortion). Here are my parents in Paris, Milan, London; in rural Italy, visiting our relatives, sipping cups of grappa. Here is my mother on her honeymoon in Santa Barbara, tan and smug, her blonde hair dyed dark, finally looking Italian, standing next to the plaque with her new last name hung on their cabin.
I did that for your father, she said when I showed her the photograph. He loved my hair dark. The minute I kicked him out, I went back to blond.
Christina and I were teenagers when she took us on a winter trip to Rome. Her voice was softer, more voluptuous, because we were traveling. We were about to tour the Parthenon when my mother paused and pointed up to a hotel. It was a pensione on a noisy street. The front had potted flowers gone brown and twisted.
When I lived here, I was in a dorm, but when your father came to visit me, we stayed in this hotel. It was very adult, and fifteen lira a night. One time I wanted to surprise him, make my hair dark. I bought a box of dye at the drugstore, but apparently didn’t let it set completely. We got into the bath and it started to run, turned the water brown. I was so embarrassed. Then it came out all over the sheets.
That’s all I know. They stayed in cheap European hotels. She loved him enough to dye her blonde hair brown. They took baths together and her hair leaked. They stained sheets.
Long Beach, 2005
Imagine an inner tube, my mother’s surgeon said. She was in the ICU. Imagine a bulge appears, where the rubber is weak. Imagine putting pressure on that inner tube, the bulge growing. Can you imagine what I’m saying?
It was March, and we were in Long Beach Memorial Medical Center. I had flown in from Rome, where I had been studying abroad.
Your mother won’t live, my aunt said when I got ahold of her. I didn’t have a cell phone, so she didn’t know how to find me. She called my school, but I was visiting Max, my first love, in Madrid. It’s evidence of how distant I was from my family that when my aunt finally called Max’s mother, she was able to get in touch with me immediately.
I called my aunt back from a phone booth. It was Good Friday in Spain. Every shop was closed, row after row of steel grates over storefronts, and all I could think was, It’s finally happening. The specter of tragedy stalking my family had arrived.
An aneurysm is a bulge in an artery in the brain. A bulge can appear and go unnoticed because it has no symptoms. What happened here is a rupture.
When an aneurysm bursts, it floods the brain with blood, an event technically called a subarachnoid hemorrhage and commonly known as a bleeding stroke. They are most often fatal. Sixty percent of the people that suffer them and survive are afflicted with brain damage.
My aunt over the phone: You better hurry up.
When my sister and I arrived at the hospital, we were told our mother may never come out of the coma.
It can be random, the surgeon said. It can be caused by high blood pressure. Sometimes smoking increases the chances that it ruptures.
She smoked, I said. A lot. And drank. Like an alcoholic drank.
He already knew. Like an alcoholic? The doctor’s folded hands. Where were the adults? Was I really alone, at twenty years old, in his office as I remember it? Did I invent him to console myself?
There’s no time of day in the ICU. I was hollowed out and sedated from the Klonopins I bought from a classmate back in Rome. I bought them for fun, not necessity. Max flew with me, breaking up pills and ordering Heinekens, feeding me pretzels when I woke up from sleep, gasping, It’s not real, in the business-class seats his parents upgraded us to. Max must have been in the waiting room while I talked to the doctor. Christina must have been somewhere—was she sleeping? Or was she making conversation over tepid coffee and vending-machine Cheetos with all my mother’s ex-husbands and ex-boyfriends? Even my father flew in.
It can also be hereditary, the surgeon said.
The drinking or the aneurysm? I asked. Genuinely.
I watched men walk all over my mother. When we were little, Christina and I were expected to entertain her boyfriends, to convince them to stay with her and, by extension, us. We put on concerts, choreographed dances. Spent extra time choosing our outfits, fixing our hair before they came over. In a few instances, we asked them to be our new father. There were more men than was prudent. Some of them treated her appallingly. One night I heard her and a boyfriend in the backyard, outside my bedroom window, fighting. He was calling her a stupid bitch in a soft, terrifying voice. I went outside in my pajamas. Get out of our house, I said to him. I wasn’t yet ten. We don’t need you. My mother was so drunk she could barely talk. She sent me back to my room. But she did need him, so far as she was concerned, since they continued dating.
By the time I was in high school, I was used to watching my mother drink herself into semiconsciousness at the kitchen barstools of our house in Seal Beach, then try to master the staircase. She would paw at the wall instead of using the banister. This was our big house, not the shitty, trashed rental we had to move into whenever she and her current boyfriend broke up. Richard was a charming but shallow lawyer who kept a safe in the garage filled with cash and guns. He didn’t believe in banks. He bought us the home when he and my mother got back together. After many years of fighting, he finally married her.
We were lucky to live there, and we all knew it. The rental had been eight hundred square feet filled with outbursts, my sister holding pillows over her ears while my mother and I screamed at each other. We blamed the confines of the apartment, but even in the bigger house, not three blocks from the ocean, there wasn’t enough room for my mother and me.
At that point it had been years since she’d asked the most basic questions about my life: who my friends were, what I cared about, who I wanted to be. I was failing classes, constantly in detention, and when the report cards came home, she only raised her eyebrows at them, proof that her low estimation of my character was deserved. I’d come home stoned and, instead of running up to my room, stalk her in the kitchen, itching for a confrontation. I would stand at the fridge eating chicken salad with my hands, opening bags of tortilla chips, microwaving Hot Pockets I bought myself at the 7-Eleven. I was either hiding from her rage or trying to get her attention—there was no safe middle ground while she was drinking. I stared at her while she looked, fixedly, at the small television.
Leave me alone, she slurred.
Why can’t you be happy? I asked.
She pretended to file her nails. Go to your room.
I sat on the countertop and ate with a stoner’s abandon, totally invisible to her. When she saw me again, she was startled. She said, point-blank, Some people aren’t meant to be happy.
What people, I wondered. Me?
That’s bullshit, I shot back. You’re just lazy.
You’re lazy, she said halfheartedly, too drunk to finish an argument. And you’re selfish. Just like—
—My father. I know.
I continued eating, my hunger bottomless. I opened cupboards, ransacked bags of chips. My mother’s eyes were glued to the TV.
Some evenings she would sketch while she was drinking. When I was a child, in a fit of optimism, she had taken interior design classes at a night school. Another such mood had her looking at real estate in Santa Fe (I can actually breathe there, she confided to me, turning pages of a Sunset magazine). A door would open up in her, and through it I could see our escape. But her enthusiasm over projects, trips, and potential lives was terribly short-lived. If I tried to bring it up again, she silenced me quickly. It came down to money. The muddy secret of our life was that we never had any money. As a court clerk, my mother barely made ends meet. My father’s child support was inconsistent at best. My grandparents paid for her first house and for private school. They gave us an allowance, bought our clothes, took us on vacation. They control me, she would whisper, her teeth purpled from wine. They use the money to control me. Every dream died on her and left a bitter stain.
Still, she would occasionally take out some graph paper and start sketching a new house for us. Maybe she would leave Richard, she would say, sell the house. Move to Hawaii.
Yes, I would say when I was little. Let’s go together. Why not?
Seal Beach, 1999
My mother didn’t often hit me when I was a child. A slap here or there, something she learned from my grandmother, who used to smash my head into the wall if I misbehaved. But my mother couldn’t stomach spanking us. She took so many hits from my grandmother, she knew if she started lashing out like that, she wouldn’t be able to stop.
But during her second marriage, when her drinking got worse, she stopped caring. I used to ask Christina why our mom hated me. Maybe because you don’t put your stuff away? she guessed. My grandmother said I was too much like my father. That’s impossible, I replied. I didn’t even know him.
My mother waited until we were physical equals—until I was as tall as her, weighed more than her, when we had already been at each other’s throats for years—to start trying to physically dominate me. It began with breaking plates to make her point. One night she threw a Pyrex dish at me. It bounced off the wall and didn’t shatter. The hitting and hair yanking followed. Christina ran up the stairs when it started—all it took was our mother’s tone of voice to shift, and she’d race to her bedroom and lock the door.
I remember the back of my mother’s smoothly sculpted plastic Mason Pearson brush against my cheek when she smacked me with it. I’d curled into myself, shielding my face, but she still landed shots to my skull, my neck, my back. She’d never hit me with something before, and I remember thinking, Someone has to stop this. The next day my face would be swollen.
And then I pushed back. I don’t remember how close we were to the stairs, but I do remember suspecting—I was on fire with the suspicion—that I was stronger than her. She was drunk and stumbled backwards, as if the landing were a steep hill she was falling down. Her tiny frame, in that large nightgown, parachuting while she tumbled. I immediately heard my grandmother’s voice indicting me: She pushed her mother down the stairs.
Years of slaps taken and returned, the cursing, door-slamming, the horrific shit we said to each other and I was shocked—no I was terrified—that I was as strong as I thought. Once I’d tipped the power balance, I was at sea, sinking with regret.
I hurried down the flight of stairs and stood over her for a moment. I watched her register, in that underwater, sodden way, where she was and what had happened, then I bent down to comfort her. You’re okay, I said, binding her hands so she couldn’t hit me again. Just get up, I said firmly.
I got her into bed and wanted nothing more than for her to be in control again, but it was far too late. I was already partially living with my best friend Taja, whose family had a habit of taking in strays. I was already failing out of high school. My grandparents stepped in and negotiated. My mother and I saw the therapist we had been with for years. We tried again.
A month later she kicked me out and changed the locks.
That night, she threw my clothes away in big black trash bags. Christina called me to retrieve them before they were picked up. I rode my skateboard to the house from the alley. My sister watched from the upstairs bathroom while I poked around the bins. I waved at her just to say, I’m OK. I skated away with one bag sitting on the front of the board, another on my back, wearing the pajamas I’d slept in the night before. I rode to Walt’s Wharf, the seafood restaurant where I was employed as a hostess and clocked in. I fished out my work clothes, the white button-down horribly wrinkled, and my clogs. It’s fine, I told a concerned coworker, I’m free. I was never going to be controlled by anyone, I decided. I was never going to be dependent on anyone. Was that the first moment I knew I could burn a bridge and survive? And that my survival became colored by spite?
That fall down the stairs was really the end of any pretense of my mother and I being able to live together. Adults I knew worried about me, offered to feed and house me. Even my teachers heard about it. I lived with my best friend for the next two months. I’m not sure what my mother told her friends, about who or what instigated our separation. Sometimes she would call the police on me and say I was a runaway. They would show up to claim me. She’s an alcoholic, I would say to them. She kicked me out. I’m not safe there. I had an older boyfriend who helped me take steps toward an emancipation. I went to a few Al-Anon meetings with senior girls who were already on their way to recovery. I was sixteen.
After that night, my mother and I stopped speaking for a long time. We never spent more than a few days under the same roof until she was released from the hospital, and I moved in to be her nurse for the summer.
Long Beach, 2005
First, we were told she would never wake up, and, if she did, she would never speak or walk.
Three weeks later, with plastic tubes filling up her throat, her eyes opened—blink blink blink—at the strangers around her. We talked in careful, soothing voices and touched her hands, thinking we were connecting, as if she knew us.
Did she, in fact, want to be touched? How horrific to be handled by anyone and have no recourse. How condescending, to not know where you are or who you are, and everyone in the room cooing at you. Sometimes her blinks were pained, panicked.
My aunt: She was technically dead. They weren’t even going to operate. Your grandfather stopped a surgeon in the halls who was leaving—his shift was over—and begged him to come back. He stood there weeping and said, Save my baby. My aunt sighs. I wouldn’t have done it.
The night of my mother’s aneurysm she was at the gym. A week earlier she’d turned forty-seven and was getting herself “bikini ready.” She was engaged to her boyfriend, Bruce—her soon-to-be third husband. They met on eharmony. They were shopping for rings and had a trip to Hawaii planned for the next month.
She was working with a trainer when it happened. She remembers complaining of a headache. And then she hit the ground.
I don’t remember my aunt or my grandfather escorting me to her room at the hospital.
I do remember the Jamaican nurse who sang hymns to my mother while she lay unconscious. I remember Christina and me in the hallway of the ICU, drenched in its green light, which I came to think of as the color of illness, and the various adults who came to visit, trying to prepare us.
At the door to my mother’s room, I asked my sister if she wanted me to go in first and she shook her head. We held hands. As we walked down the hallway, I looked into every window of every room, trying to meet the eyes of every patient.
I think now it’s a blessing that our loved ones are often so unrecognizable in the hospital. The woman they said was my mother had a face ballooned from the blood. Her cheeks were as smooth as an ironed sheet. Her head was shaved where a line of staples curved over the left side of her skull. Her body had sunk into the bed, her silicone breasts obscenely pert and buoyant. She still had flecks of dried blood in her ears.
Bleeding out of the ears is bad, my aunt said firmly. It means brain damage if she lives.
What undid me was my mother’s tongue, bloated and protruding, suppressed by the tubes of machines making her breathe. It was like a dog’s, like a child mimicking disgust. Or exhaustion.
She’s just a little girl, I whispered into my sister’s ear. It was my first thought. Look. I tried to turn her toward our mother, who I reasoned was not really our mother. I think I was saying that she wasn’t responsible for us any longer. She was our child now, we mustn’t think of her as a mother.
I remember the smell of my sister’s hair when I held her face to my neck. I remember being grateful that she smelled the same. (When they first handed her to me, covered in brown fur, sullen, wrinkled, red, I was twenty-one months old and said to the adults, My baby.)
But I can’t remember noise. None from her or the machines keeping Nancy technically alive. I remember thinking that if my sister cried, it wasn’t my turn to cry, that we would have to cry one at a time.
I left my sister with my aunt in the waiting room. I excused myself to the restroom, shut the door, locked it. In the mirror, I stared into my eyes: my mother’s eyes, my grandmother’s eyes, my great-grandmother’s eyes, and like a mantra I repeated to myself, She’s just a little girl.
The ICU’s staff was proud of my mother. After three weeks in a coma, she opened her eyes. She blinked. A week later they removed her throat tubes—scratching, then scarring her vocal cords—and she gnawed on syllables. Groans. Yelps. More time passed and she spoke. Nonsense at first, lovely infantile gibberish. She still relied mostly on blinks: once for yes, two for no. On the cover of their newsletter, the hospital published a photo of her sitting in a wheelchair in their community garden. She’s collapsed into one side of the chair, like an infant that can’t support its body’s weight yet. She was considered a miracle recovery.
My grandfather and aunt were desperate to buy time, to buy more physical therapy, more medical attention. There were too many unknowns (Would she speak? Would she walk? Would she be able to work again? Drive? How would we afford twenty-four-hour care?). We read that the first three months were crucial in determining the success of recovery. My aunt got us two additional months at the hospital, and hope seethed through us. The right side of my mother’s body was initially completely paralyzed, but after a month of daily acupuncture and physical therapy, she could do small steps with a walker. She would be coming home.
I was supposed to be in New York that summer, where I had been every summer and winter break. I lived with my boyfriend Max’s family on the Upper East Side, a generous and warm family where everyone, even his seven-year-old sister, was intellectually inclined. We often danced in the living room after dinner. Max’s mother was my best friend—we went to yoga together, gossiped for hours. She took me to her salon, bought me a Lilly Pulitzer dress. We regularly got manicures together. We all went to their house in Vermont for weeks in August and swam in a lake. While friends took unpaid internships at theaters and PR companies, I unpacked boxes at the Borders on Columbus Circle. I wore a back brace while breaking down pallets and did overnight shifts counting inventory and still felt privileged because I was close to books. I was so infatuated with the city, the archaic East Coast and its customs, that I sometimes cried when I drove in over the bridges. Seal Beach was claustrophobic and dismal by comparison.
But my sister begged me to come home, and my grandfather demanded I do so. There was talk of my not being able to finish college because of expenses. Everything was on hold until we saw what we were dealing with. Your mother needs you, my grandfather said. There would be no New York. Due to the aneurysm, I had missed so many classes in Rome that my teachers didn’t know how to grade me. I took my finals then flew back to Los Angeles. I would live with my mother again. A miracle recovery.
We didn’t have money for full-time care, but two days a week we had a professional nurse, Luz, from the Philippines. She was a little lax with my mother, but she was kind. For the other five days, I was the nurse, with my sister helping when she could, although this became another thing I imagined I was protecting her from. I often wonder what would have become of my mother if that care ratio was reversed. Or if Christina had been in charge. I know that I tried.
By now my mother was the size of a hummingbird. The hospital escort carried her up the stairs to the master bedroom. Her eyes were wide with fright, and her pulse raced so fast that I could see it flickering on her wrists. She didn’t remember her house. She didn’t speak a word that first day.
Home was where the miracles stopped. Her fiancé, Bruce, who came to the hospital every day for months, visited less and less. His calls were suddenly fewer and far between. Each one left her confused and agitated as she tried to remember him and connect to him. After one phone call, in which my mother mostly mumbled and nodded, I asked to speak to him.
I need you to stop calling.
He cried into the phone. It felt obligatory. He was spineless, the kind of person who can’t be around other people’s pain without revealing their own weakness. I had only met him once.
It’s just . . . I have a son . . . I’m not rich . . . I can’t . . .
Bruce, I said, through my teeth, of course you can’t. No one is blaming you. Grow up and stop calling her. She’ll forget you in a week.
He continued crying. Eventually I hung up on him. Yet for all my bravado, very few things gut me as thoroughly as the memory of her saying in the bathtub, in that squeaky, doll voice, I have a boyfriend, right?
She had to ask for her memories back from me. When I recall the times I’ve had steel in my blood, where I wanted nothing but to survive, it’s my grandmother’s voice that comes out in me. I felt nothing looking at my mother, though her face was falling. No. You don’t.
Her brain will make new connections, Dr. Chan had assured me. In the beginning she had no memory at all, no recall even of her daughters. But slowly the long-term storage unpacked itself. We didn’t know if the short-term would ever quite arrive. It was over a month before she knew her own name, or what time of year it was. Dr. Chan gave me instructions on how to nurse her. We had exercises, physical and mental, daily. I read books on brain trauma. Biweekly acupuncture appointments. She had a weekly meeting at the hospital where she sat with the other survivors, and they tried to talk but mostly just sat together, their aliveness its own success story. I bought flash cards for different age levels, games, crossword puzzles, coloring books, and colored pencils.
She was okay with basic emotions. Happy, she read off a card.
That’s right. Do you remember a time you were happy? A tree or a flower, structures of civilization. Do you know the names of any trees? What happens when the light turns red? She could identify a hospital. An airplane. A family.
I don’t want to do this, she said, and considered her hands in her lap.
I know. I put the flash cards down. Me neither.
A dream of mine from that time is of pastoral New England: a parade on a country dirt road, cattle fences beside it. The parade is more like a caravan, everyone wrapped in tunics. Some wrapped their faces and I knew they were God. There is a broken section of fence. Through that break, which I know is the break in my mother’s brain, each person throws a trinket, an offering. Lockets, bread, dolls, scarves. I am standing aside holding tools, anxious for the parade to finish so that I can get back to repairing the fence. It’s there in the dream: my small reserves of patience, waiting for an apology, a recognition of the pain she caused me, an idiotic, child’s amount of hope that she would care what happened to her.
At night, I listened to my mother’s fluttery hummingbird breaths and felt the force of how quickly lives change. Not just hers but mine. Wiping out her memory had wiped out my entire childhood. I had Christina, but she was younger than me. Our versions of events vary wildly. It felt like there was no witness to my growing up, no one paying attention anymore, as if the backdrop had fallen away, revealing an empty soundstage. The aneurysm also took away our chance to fix anything between us. It was all gone.
That first week, I slept on a cot in my mother’s room, sometimes right outside the door if I couldn’t handle it anymore. “It” wasn’t the gross stuff. I didn't care about showering her, trying to shave her legs, trying to tweeze the hairs, which had grown long and wavy at the hospital, around her nipples. I didn’t care about helping her with tampons when her period surprised us. Didn’t care about brushing her teeth, icing bruises that welled up every time she hit a wall.
It was her breathing while sleeping. Panting while dreaming. I knew in her dreams that she didn’t know what had happened to her. She would wake up confused all over again. Where am I? And who? When I watched her sleep, I understood that to love is neither exhilaration nor safety, but instead this: painful, too tender, forcing a forgetting that’s close to forgiveness.
Long Beach, 2015
When I arrive early that morning to take my mother to her first doctor’s appointment in at least five years, her boyfriend, Larry, is home. He opens the door already crying, on the offensive. I plummet into the surreal, repetitive reality of drug addicts and the mentally ill. It’s a place I can navigate, which is why I don’t immediately get back into my car or call the police.
Please, he begs me, his morning tremors in full effect as he grabs my arm, you have to take her.
My mother is sitting on the couch with her arms crossed, mouth set. I’m not going.
Get your walker, Nancy.
She can’t walk, Larry says.
I can walk, she says contentiously. But I’m not going to.
I use my smoothest voice: Why don’t we try, Mama?
It takes both of us—Larry on one side, me on the other—to pull her to standing. She yells at us the entire time, scratching along the walls of the house, her legs shaking. I see how weak her muscles are, how her limbs buckle at the slightest pressure. At the doorjamb she starts crying. Her nose is running over her face and into her mouth, her hands are flapping, I can’t do it, I can’t breathe. That’s when I lift her. She calls to Larry for help but holds still. I carry her against my body, rigid, across the lawn and into the street. I put her down outside my car and say, Put yourself inside, I know you can do it.
It takes ten minutes, but she does it, dragging her partially paralyzed right foot into the car with two hands. I shut the door and turn to face her boyfriend, whose terror of me is palpable. When I really look at him, I notice how gaunt he is. He has dried blood at the corners of his mouth. Something wrong with his pancreas, I’m remembering. It’s not even nine yet, and he has the sour breath of a drunk.
You should have called me, I say to Larry, using my manager’s tone, the one I used to admonish servers for being late. My mother glares at us from inside the car. Larry turns away from her, still crying, trying to hold on to me. He spews a stream of pure bullshit: He can’t live like this, he says. He tries, but he can’t keep her secrets anymore. His children tell him to leave my mother, but he just can’t, he loves her too gosh-darn much, chivalry isn’t dead. But my mother hasn’t left the house in years, she made him stop going to meetings, she drinks two bottles of wine a day, she forces him to drink, he tries to stop her, but she wakes up after he’s asleep and she walks to the liquor store to buy her booze.
Here I stop him.
Larry. You’re telling me that that woman—I point to my mother through the car window—that woman walks to the liquor store by herself—in the middle of the night—and buys booze?
He holds on to both my shoulders. Every night. I can’t stop her.
I grab his shoulders back and speak slowly, gently. You are lying. I’m taking her to the doctor now.
My mother and I are silent on the drive. I’m texting my sister, not just at stoplights, but texting constantly, needing her with me: Emergency, emergency, this is bad. My mother plays brain-dead, looking out the car window, not a tear left on her face.
When we arrive, she won’t get out of the car. She holds on to her seat belt. When I try to unbuckle her, she hits me, then gasps like I might hit her back. I leave her and go into the office to check in. There’s Dr. Chan, who I saw quite often when I was my mother’s nurse ten years ago. The relief at seeing him, the adult reality of him, makes me feel temporarily safe. This might be okay.
She won’t get out of the car. My voice cracks a little. I want him to hug me. I want to abdicate all responsibility and lie down on the floor. I swallow it. It’s a bad scene. Do you have a wheelchair?
I sit in the wheelchair across from the open passenger seat in a mostly empty parking lot. A gray coastal day, fog that should burn off by noon. We are—as I should have expected—an hour late to an appointment that is a ten-minute drive from my mother’s house. I told her that we will not be leaving until she sees Dr. Chan. We’re sitting in a sort of stalemate. I’m really just catching my breath.
She picks at her cuticles, and I stare at the mute office-park architecture, wondering if there are normal people inside doing their jobs. What do those jobs look like? Emails marked urgent, new boxes of pens and paperclips. All of that life unrecognizable to me in the one I’m living.
I’m not going in there, she says eventually.
I know, because you’re drunk, and you don’t want him to know, I say.
What I want to say is, How could you do this to me? The answer is she can’t help it. Not because of her brain, I’m realizing today, but because this is who she always was. This is who she was when she was too drunk to pick up my sister and me from friends’ houses in the evenings, or when my sister came home and found her unconscious in a puddle of blood from falling, and who she was when I was thirteen and we fought and I screamed at her to Stop, to please stop the car, I couldn’t breathe, if she didn’t stop the car I would throw myself out of it. She yanked a fistful of my hair and said, stone cold, You think you’re special? You think you’re the only one who wants to die?
This shell of a woman in a Long Beach parking lot is still the little girl I saw in the coma. When she doesn’t respond about her state of insobriety, which is an affirmative answer, I find I’m crying. Not enthusiastically, like she was, snotting and yelping while we got her out of the house, and not like Larry’s histrionic weeping. It’s the resigned, accidental crying of a child who knows no one is coming. I don’t look at my mother. I try, I really do, to keep myself tiny, silent, and numb. But I feel it coming, and then it has arrived, my hurt: it is so massive I can’t see beyond it.
Here are your options, Nancy. You go in to see your old friend Dr. Chan. Or I drive you to detox at the county hospital. Not the fancy fucking place in Newport Beach you usually go. As you know, detox sucks, and I won’t let them give you Valium. While you’re in detox, I’m going to get a lawyer. I have lots of money now, I’ll get a fancy lawyer. When you get out of detox, I’m going to put you in a nursing home, where you’re the only person not in a fucking diaper, and they won’t let you drink, and you won’t be able to hurt yourself. I look at her. And you will never see me again. I swear to God, Nancy, I will not think twice about it.
What’s that? I ask sharply. I heard her. Go ahead, say it again.
I hate you.
I nod. There is no place for my rage to land, so it dies in me, temporarily causing a roar in my ears, then nothing. I feel nothing, again. She’s as blameless as a child. None of this will stick. We are actors, playing preposterous parts, which if I tried to write, the editor would cut, scribbling Too much, and yes, it is, in fact, too much. I also know that we aren’t going to see Dr. Chan today, or any day in the future. I can’t get her out of the car against her will, and I already know it’s not possible to check her into detox without her consent. I can’t really afford a lawyer. I want to beat traffic back up the 5 and get in the bath and eat Xanax until it’s dark. This is a scene that I have played before and will play again as long as I continue to want anything from her. The players’ motives are clear enough: I want her to live, and she just wants to die.
Excerpted from STRAY: A Memoir by Stephanie Danler. To be published May 5, 2020 by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Stephanie Danler.