The Saturday Rumpus Essay: I wanted to be sure to reach you

By

“though my ship was on the way it got caught”
–Frank O’Hara, from “To the Harbormaster”

 

The wind kicks up as I wait for the 8 p.m. bus, so I wedge my gloved hands into my armpits. I’ll eat Cream of Wheat for dinner because I can’t afford meat, I tell my mother back home. I’m lying; I can’t keep solid food down anymore.

Frowning at the tops of my black-rubber snow boots, I hop from one foot to the other in hopes of circulating blood. Underneath are two pairs of socks, but I can’t feel my feet. Though I think about calling someone to distract me from possible frostbite, the fingers it would take to dial would surely snap off faster than my feet have gone numb. I will wait it out.

The night before, a disturbed man sat behind me on the bus and brushed his fingertips up and down the back of my neck—the first time a man touched me, that I was aware there was a back to my neck, in months.

I never leave my bedroom on Sundays, my only day off spent peering through windows insulated by plastic shrink-wrap as if in a quarantine. I learn that cold makes me believe in hell more than fire does, that wind can sound like a clean sheet snapping across a mattress, that I understand why the poet I used to sleep with had only a pallet on hardwood floor. He so deeply grieved the woman who came before me that he couldn’t buy a bed.

Is that mourning?

 

The man who came before him asked me over breakfast—a bowl of muesli, a cup of espresso—if we should have a child together.

When he left instead, my mother hand fed me as I sobbed so hard that little flakes of cheese and cracker flew back out of my mouth and into her face. She brought me orange juice mixed with San Pellegrino the morning she found me with tequila-vomit down my shirt, one of my sandals on the front lawn.

Often I can’t sleep, so I make banana pancakes.

I don’t look for the pen caps I lose; I let them stay lost.

When my mother, my brother, my friend who is like a sister says they will meet me at a certain place at a certain time, I drive, walk, commute to that place at that time expecting them to not be there.

Is that mourning?

 

I go home to visit and my mother says to me, “I think I need to go to therapy.”

Taking a bite of my doughnut, I push hers toward her on the pink napkin. She divides it into sections.

“Then you should go,” I say.

When her sister, my aunt, was hooked up to feeding tubes and breathing machines, my uncle giving her sponge baths three times a day, rubbing lotion into her somehow still flushed, pink skin, my father said to my mother: I don’t know if I could do that.

She heard this as: I would unplug you.

I get her a referral. She drinks a diet Coke when she cooks dinner and smells like wine.

Is that mourning?

 

My aunt was in South America holding her infant granddaughter when she had the stroke. Half her face went slack and my cousin, her daughter, took the baby, shouting, trying to keep her mother awake. My aunt went into a coma. The doctors removed half her skull to relieve the pressure of her swollen brain. She died.

My cousin begins dating a woman; my uncle struggles to speak to her when he finds out; at the funeral I ask him why he puts clam juice in his beer, but he can’t answer me, his crying silent and perpetual.

Is that mourning?

 

My brother calls me enraged because Mom’s been drinking again. “Why the hell does she do this?” he asks, and I have no answer, which is worse than the string of profanities that follow his question.

“I’m sorry,” I say over and over, though he’s not listening, yells over me. Tears begin to gather, my bottom lids fragile cups cracking and spilling as I blink.

“I have to go to work now,” I say.

I hang up, answerless and tearful.

Is that mourning?

 

I call my father enraged and say: “I have no answers for your son. You are her husband, she is your wife. You have to deal with this.”

These are words—husband, wife—that I cannot begin to understand. They are big and heavy in my mouth. I launch them at my father like the profanities my brother launched at me.

“I’ll stop,” my mother suddenly says and I audibly suck in my breath, slamming a palm to my forehead as if forcefully checking for a fever. “If it threatens my relationship with my children, I’ll stop.” She’s been silent on the other line, listening to what I say but do not fully understand, can only grasp the edges of because I only know that this is not what daughter, sister—the only roles I fill—mean.

I’ve never filled the role of mother.

“I’m sorry,” I say, struggling for breath.

I’ve forgotten how many times, to whom, and for what I’m apologizing.

Is that mourning?

 

Emily. That’s the name of my mother’s therapist. There’s a Polaroid of the poet kissing a woman and you can tell he’s smiling; I keep solid food down in the warmer city I moved to.

Drinking is the one topic my mother will not broach with Emily; I don’t know if the poet bought a bed; there’s a box of Cream of Wheat in my new pantry. I have no children.

We are caught reaching for what is no longer there—sister, lover, child.

I have no answers, but I can feel my feet.

***

Feature photograph © Hernán Piñera, licensed under Creative Commons. Cropped from original.


Haley Swanson is a literary scout. She lives and writes in Brooklyn. More from this author →