I know she drank her coffee black. I know she had high cheekbones and copper-colored hair. I know that she suffered from migraines, that she was diagnosed as manic-depressive, that she received electroshock therapy.
This is my mother, Olivia Freedman. She hung herself from a rafter when I was eight years old.
“I ’m getting a headache,” I tell Ben. I am tucked against the warm window on the passenger side of his truck, knees drawn to my chest.
He turns the radio off. We are on the fourth hour of this five-hour drive to my childhood home. Ben has been singing along with the rock station, his church-choir tenor rising above crackling static.
I roll the window down and survey the spindly palm trees whipping in the wind. Hot car exhaust mingles with the smell of gasoline and the fried, oily odor of Luby’s Cafeteria. The sign on the buffet place has removable black letters, like a movie-theater marquee: Luby’s for Lent! Tilapia! Catfish! Salmon Filet! We roll past dilapidated storefronts, iron benches, a small Hispanic church. On its well-kept lawn, a sign: Virtud del mes: Honestidad. “The virtue of the month is honesty,” I inform Ben.
“Then tell me,” he says, “what’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?”
Images race through my mind. Bleak and terrifying, all. I go with something safe. “When I was in college, I would go swimming in the fountains. By myself. In the middle of the night.”
“Maybe you were a dolphin in a past life.”
“I see myself as more of a hermit crab.”
“Maybe we were hermit crabs together.”
“No way. You would have been a dolphin.”
As a child my mother wore dresses sewn from flour sacks, dresses worn until they were worn out, worn-out dresses cut into aprons, quilt squares, rags. She was sixteen in the humid Texarkana summer, canning tomatoes while her parents were at church in town. Water boiled on all the burners, jars sucked in their seals, water steamed up, boiled down. She tried not to drop hot jars, burn her fingers, spoil the fruit. She sent her youngest brother — James, an epileptic — to fetch water from the open well.
He was eight years old. He had a seizure, fell in, and drowned.
My father’s sunken living room is carpeted with ocher shag, yarn I yanked at as a child. I sit down at the piano, plunk some notes.
“I didn’t know you played.” Ben peels off his paint-flecked work shirt and flops onto the couch.
I spin around on the piano bench. “Sweetheart, ‘Chopsticks’ doesn’t count.” I watch him pick up a National Geographic from the coffee table and flip it open. His face is eager, searching, bright.
I don’t know where he came from. Darkness rolls off him. His face lights up at my voice, the mention of dinner, the prospect of sex.
“I’d kill for your endorphins,” I say.
“If you want endorphins, go on a run.”
I consider the mystery of his buoyant personality. “Ben. What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you?”
“In high school I had tonsillitis so bad my throat closed up.” His dimples fade. “I could only eat yogurt for a month.”
My laughter comes out hard and brittle.
“Jesus, Laura. I lost, like, thirty pounds.”
“Want to know the worst thing that ever happened to me?”
He braces himself.
I burrow my face in his neck. “My boyfriend tried to make me go running.”
“It would actually be good for you.”
“Thanks for doing this,” I say. “Thanks for coming with me.”
“Baby.” Ben stretches and yawns. “I’m getting paid.”
It’s true: my lawyer brother is paying us to spend a weekend preparing the house for sale. It’s sat empty since our father died six months ago. I’m sorting photos and letters, folding clothes into boxes. Ben is painting over the faded yellow with a tasteful tan. He takes any odd jobs that come his way, subsisting, as he currently is, on parental largess and student loans. When he finishes his MBA in June, however, he will plunge into the world of high-paid energy consulting and economics.
“You’re my favorite sellout,” I say, and kiss him on the temple.
According to my uncle, my grandmother was a grim-lipped woman, hair tightly wound. She blamed my mother for James’s death, radiating silent coldness, accusation wearing wrinkles in her face. Olivia left home at eighteen, lived in a boardinghouse, worked as a secretary. She met my father while waiting in line for peanuts at the zoo.
Ten years later Olivia was in a tract home in Plano, Texas, with two kids and her auto-mechanic husband. She got word that her mother was on her deathbed, waiting to see her daughter, wanting to make peace.
My mother got a migraine. She stayed in her room for three days, until word came: her mother had died.
Some mornings, riled with anger, my mother would unmake beds, stuff sheets in the washer, vacuum violently, scream at those who crossed her path. Some mornings she gardened, whistled, cracked eggs in a bowl, and rolled round mounds of snicker-doodle dough. She hid beer cans behind the sewing machine. She made a scene in church. She slit her wrists in the bathtub. She came back from the hospital, passive and dazed. She played bridge. She dieted. In photographs, she was pleasant, loving, laughing. Beautiful.
Ben stands behind me, drinking lemonade, examining the photographs I’ve laid out on the table.
He taps the edge of a picture. “You look like her.” In the snapshot, my mother holds a hard-shell suitcase in a shipyard, her floral shirt tucked into a woolen skirt. Behind her a car hangs suspended by a crane. She is laughing.
“She doesn’t look crazy.” Ben frowns.
“Sometimes she was normal. Sometimes she was fine.”
After six months of dating, Ben still believes that my Seroquel tablets are for epilepsy, that my visits to the shrink are weekly massages. I guess I seemed stable when I met him. At twenty-six I have suede suit jackets, potted cacti on my porch, and a job teaching English to migrant farmworkers. I read more books in a month than Ben does in a year.
And this is my longest-running relationship. Other boyfriends left when I emphasized a point by throwing a bowl of salad out the window. But my meds are better-adjusted now. And Ben is more accepting, or less observant, than any other man I’ve loved.
In my father’s closet I find a ledger. In the front of the book is a record of his stocks. In the back are terse notations regarding my mother’s episodes:
April 3: 3 bottles behind the radiator.
April 7: O. dropped kids at Sunday school, stopped at the liquor store, bought wine. Confrontation in the driveway. April 10: Came home from work, found her in bed, cuddling with the baby. Vacant eyes, incoherent speech.
I also find this obituary:
Mrs. Olivia Freedman, of 40 Peachtree Lane, died suddenly yesterday in her home. Born in Arkansas, Mrs. Freedman worked as a typist before marrying Lieutenant Orville Freedman. She is survived by her husband and two children.
We sleep in my father’s bed: a gold-and-brown quilt, pillows that smell like dust. I am restless in this house where migraines came to my mother, pressed in on her, crushed her until she could not breathe. I unfold myself from Ben’s arms, get up to open a window. But there are no windows in this bedroom. I stand by the bed and stare at the wall.
“What are you doing?” Ben asks, eyes half open. He lifts the covers with one arm.
I climb back in bed, rest my head on his chest. Spooned against the warm curl of his body, I feel the damp toads sleeping in the cave of my chest awaken. One by one, they hop away.
Dream: The Bureaucracy of Heaven
File Clerk: No suicides.
Olivia: (Crazed silence.)
Me: You’ve got to consider her circumstances.
File Clerk: (Lifting a stack of papers.) Despair is the greatest sin. (Raises eyebrows.) The sin of Judas.
Me: Judas betrayed Jesus. (Taking Olivia by the arm.) Surely a suicide does not compare.
File Clerk: Tsk-tsk. (Glances at records.) Judas went to hell for hanging himself in the potter’s field. His despair — not his betrayal — was his great sin. (Reads from regulations.) “Despair — the failure to believe in God’s redemptive power. Suicide is a sin of despair.”
Me: Then I feel sorry for Judas.
File Clerk: (Lowers glasses on nose.) Dante made suicides into bleeding trees.
Me: (To Olivia.) Let’s go.
The next morning I sit on the garage steps. I open my journal and order my thoughts.
This is the logic of suicide:
Suffering > Coping Mechanisms = Unbearable Suffering Suicide = Cessation of Suffering Solution = Suicide Coping Mechanisms > Suffering = Bearable Suffering Bearable Suffering = Life Solution = Life
Dust motes swim below the rafters. The window gleams, piercing and bright. My eyes unfocus, and my mother appears — filmy, electric blue, muttering to herself.
I put the rope around my neck. It was thin and scratchy. Then I saw it, how it would happen, light going out in my brain.
“Mom,” I say, cheeks wet, “it’s me.”
My mother looks into my eyes. She is suddenly sitting next to me on the step. Calm. Exhausted.
This happens to you, too, you know. She touches my cheek. Don’t worry, babe. Her hand is soft, and strangely warm. You’ve got a good year left. She flickers, then shorts out.
Ben finds me sitting on the garage steps. He eases down beside me, bad knee cracking.
“This house creeps me out,” I say.
He surveys a bucket of hoary tennis balls, orderly rows of tinned meat, mop heads fraying with grime. “I found something in the crawl space.”
Ben has discovered a bamboo picnic basket full of my mother’s papers, wedged between fragile Oriental plates and ancient barbells. We bring it to the living room and finger through a sheaf of onionskin documents. At the top: “English 103. Olivia Freedman.” Twelve essays from a community-college English course.
“The Most Interesting Person I Know” offers a description of me at four years old: “While Peter was at his first day of school this fall, I had busied myself in the kitchen, cutting the crusts from Laura’s sandwiches. When I called little Laura to the table, she was nowhere to be found. Fearing she had wandered away, I searched up and down the street. I finally found her a block from the school, cuddling her kitten. She said that Fiddlesticks wanted to learn the alphabet, too.”
“A Memorable Day” details a visit to the circus with my brother and me: “The clown’s antics delighted Peter, and I could not help but join in his laughter. Laura, however, was frightened by the shouting and clanging, so I fed her bits of cotton candy.”
“This isn’t right.” I hand Ben “My Favorite Object,” “An Oriental Wedding,” and “My Recipe for Marmalade.” “She sounds like June Cleaver.”
“What did you expect? ‘I Hurt Myself Today to See If I Still Feel’? ”
“It’s phony. It’s not her.”
“You were eight when she died.” He sets his hand on my knee. “How would you possibly know?”
“Trust me, I know.”
“She’s not you, Laura.”
Hairs prickle on my neck. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’re mad her essays aren’t like pages from your diary.”
“You left it open on the dresser, Laura. It was an invitation.”
“I trusted you!”
“Apparently not enough to tell me you take antipsychotic medication.”
“They’re mood stabilizers!”
“Well, they’re not working very well, are they?”
I take a deep breath, center myself, then slap him. “Get out.”
He grabs his keys and his jacket. The door slams shut.
In the bedroom I flip open my journal and reread what I’ve written, what he’s read.
March 5: Another pimple on my cheek. I’ve counted seven. It looks like someone had a pizza delivered to my face.
March 6: I unraveled. See? This morning. I came apart like paper in water. I want out of this body. I am afraid of this face. March 7: Dr. T. upped the Seroquel. I don’t feel a fucking thing. March 8: Marcie asked me what it was like to date Ben. I told her it was like adopting a golden retriever. March 9: He is the puppy, I am the bitch.
I run hot water in the bathtub, peel off my rings and bracelets, unfurl my hair from its clumsily wadded bun. Steam fogs the mirror, erasing mascara streaks and swollen eyes. The water scalds my hand, but I step in anyway, no-slip flowers on the tub’s base sandpapery against my heels. My mother tried it here, cooking herself before cutting herself.
Tight ribbons of muscle unclench in my back. I soak.
I pull on a tank top and my father’s maroon sweatpants. He wore them as he bent to pick up sand dollars in the wind, brushing off silt with dry thumbs. The lamp on the piano has a hollow base of glass filled with coral and sea-urchin shells. It illuminates the living room as I kneel and put my mother’s papers back in the basket. I carry them out to the garage.
My mother is in there, doing laundry. Takes a lot of bleach to get blood out of blankets. Take it from me: when you slit your wrists, stay in the tub.
I recognize the fabric she’s loading — the swatches that make up my bedroom quilt. But instead of scraps, they are blouses and dresses. Whole.
“Listen,” I say, setting the basket down. “I don’t blame you for what you did. But maybe I have a little more self-control.”
Oh, yes. She takes my chin in her hand. You’re the queen of self-control.
“Doesn’t mean I’ll make the same choice.”
She studies my face. I wish you wouldn’t wear my costume jewelry like it’s real jewelry.
I touch my earrings. “I got these at a craft fair.”
She looks out the window. It’s not a choice.
“Are you saying there’s no free will?”
Free will was when I chose between eggs and oatmeal. She makes a jerking gesture at her throat, tilts her head to the side. That wasn’t a choice.
“If it wasn’t a choice, it wasn’t a sin. And if it wasn’t a sin, you should be in heaven. Or, Jesus, I don’t know! Purgatory, at least.”
You’ll have to pass that on to the authorities.
“What are you doing in the garage?”
She looks at me. This is my heaven. Doing laundry for eternity. Being insulted by my baby girl. She throws her hands in the air. Hallelujah. Glory be!
And then she is gone.
I listen for Ben. My hair is a tangle of wet snakes on the pillow. Finally: a fumbling at the front door, keys clanking on the counter. Ben runs water in the kitchen, opens the fridge. The bedroom, I will him. Don’t sleep on the couch.
“Hey,” he says. He is standing in the doorway, backlit by the bathroom light.
“Hey.” I sit up and pat the scratchy comforter.
He steps out of his sneakers and flops on the bed, smelling like paint and deodorant and crushed leaves.
I pick a piece of lint from my sweatpants. “Sorry I smacked you.”
“Eh. You’re not that strong.”
I hold my toes, cold outside the covers. “You shouldn’t have read my diary.”
“You shouldn’t have lied to me.”
I point to myself. “Sin of omission.” I point to him. “Sin of commission.”
“Technicalities. What matters is that we can trust each other.”
I lie down. “I have a lot of baggage.”
He spoons me. “Everyone has baggage.”
He rubs my back, trailing his hand between my shoulder blades. “You know, you also wrote about how much you like me.”
“Yeah. Pages and pages. It was really sweet.”
I roll over, look at Ben across the pillow. I expect to see something in those dark pools — some secret, some answer — but I just see his eyes, soft and moist. A creature unafraid of scrutiny because he hasn’t been hurt.
“You know what the thing about my mom is?” I say. “The thing that scares me?”
“I don’t think it was a choice.”
“You always have a choice.”
“I don’t want my story to end like that.”
“I’m not sure I believe that.”
“What can I do to make you believe it?”
I shut my eyes. Rising from the carpet: the smell of damp towels and broken sand dollars. Ben’s fingers trace the side of my face, stroke the tiny wisps of hair along my earlobes.
I blink, a cavern of birds opening in my stomach.
“I don’t know.”