After you finally quit sleeping with your long-time married boyfriend and after you have been to therapy every week for three years, and after you have at least started the process of loving yourself, you meet your second husband at a wedding. A year after you meet, you move to San Diego to be with him. You pack your books, pots and pans, and clothes into the back of an SUV and drive from New York to San Diego together. Along the way, you visit friends and family. The last night of the trip, you stay with one of his friends in Vallecitos, New Mexico.
“I’m excited for you to meet Don,” your future husband says. “I just know you two are going to love each other.”
You’ve heard about Don several times over the past year. In addition to being the father of one of your future husband’s childhood friends, he is also a reflexologist—a craft he learned in Brazil when he and his wife waited months to adopt their daughter.
When you pull into the tiny town of Vallecitos, a loose horse rambles down the road in front of your car and the sunset lights up the sky with bursts of orange and pink. The smell of dirt and animals wafts in through your rolled-down windows. Mountains guard the horizon as if to signal one last gate to cross—one last rite of passage before this journey ends.
Don, a large man with long, white hair and a commanding presence, greets you with a smile and open arms when you pull up to his house. He wears a brimmed hat, flannel shirt, and jeans. As he gives you a tour of the hand-built straw-bale house your future husband helped build years ago, you can’t help thinking that he reminds you of a counter-culture kind of Santa Clause.
Sitting and talking to Don in his hand-built house feels sacred—like a kind of church. Slowly, you are meeting all the people that matter deeply to your partner, and when you meet them, it’s like you’re able to skip over the usual conventions of getting to know someone—as though their existing relationship acts like a conductor through which you can pass.
Over drinks, Don cries openly as he speaks of his deceased son—the older brother of your partner’s long-time friend. You feel honored to share this intimate grief with him.
After drinks and dinner, Don offers you a treatment. Your future husband has prepared you for this possibility. “If he offers, you should only do it if you’re comfortable. It can be very intense.”
You are not sure if it is the wine, the conductor phenomenon, or Don’s transparency, but you feel relaxed and ready for the treatment when he offers. It’s as if the last few years you were only preparing to do the work and suddenly, tonight, you are finally ready to do the work.
You are ready to see yourself.
“Tell me anything you want to tell me,” he says sitting on the adobe floor, pressing into the soles of your feet while looking up at your face. You cry and speak only of your mother who has lived with early-onset Parkinson’s disease since you were in college. Even though you live far away, you worry about her like she is your child. This worry takes up so much space that you find it difficult to inhabit your role as her child and you want so badly to be her child.
As you speak and Don presses his thumbs into your soles with forceful intensity, you feel your feet grounding into the earth—Don’s hands like cool concrete and wet grass rising up to meet you. Your feet dangle off of the couch, but it feels like you’re standing firmly, not floating, for the first time in years.
Afterwards, you feel exhausted and begin dozing off on the couch. Don composes a lullaby for you on the spot, singing and playing guitar, incorporating all the things you talked about in an affirming way.
You have done so much work to see yourself properly—to look at your world more objectively—to stop using your own creativity and sexuality to escape yourself—to be present in the reality of the world and your actions, but you are not finished looking.
“You’re still your mother’s daughter,” Don sings to you over and over again sitting on the other end of the couch at your feet. You role onto your side and tuck your knees into your chest, balled up like a growing fetus. Each time he sings the line, you start to believe him more. All this time you had forgotten you were someone’s child. You were so busy trying to grow up and become someone, escape the Midwest, escape yourself, and take care of your parents throughout it all that you had forgotten you were still your mother’s child and your were still your father’s child. In this moment, you connect the dots. You sought guidance from your married boyfriend, once your teacher, like a parent when you tried to grow as a writer far from home, a child again, unfamiliar with the east coast literary terrain. You sought shelter in him when your first marriage crumbled. You looked for a family in him when your mother’s illness progressed. You expected him to love you unconditionally like a parent loves a child. You kept throwing yourself at him expecting him to love you properly even when he didn’t, because you needed him to love you. You were, in your mind, motherless, and your will for unconditional love blinded you to the reality of him.
You fall asleep on the couch and dream that you are a child again. You are determined and running towards the front door. Your mother wears a brown apron with white scalloped edges and small orange and yellow flowers. It ties around her neck and her waist. She wears high waisted jean shorts, sandals, a white t-shirt, and blue, plastic clip-on earrings—two large orbs that seem to grow out of her earlobes. Her hair is shaved in the back. You like the way it feels under your fingers when she puts you on her hip and you hug her around the neck—prickly points that tickle your fingers—little hairs with lives of their own. Your own hair is dark like your dad’s and cut in a round bowl shape. It bounces when you run. You like when your mother washes your and your sister’s hair in the kitchen sink. You like the way she looks down at you.
She stands in the kitchen cutting up watermelon. She places the brightly colored triangles into a milky white Tupperware bowl.
“Going to Ethel’s,” you shout to your mother over your shoulder as you run from the kitchen, through the living room, toward the front door. Your legs are wobbly under your compact body, but your strong will commands one leg in front of the other. You like to assert your independence by walking next door, alone, to visit your elderly neighbor, Ethel. Her house is identical to yours, but handmade, colorful doilies cover every surface of her living room. You like to sit with her in the kitchen, talking and eating entire sleeves of oatmeal cookies.
You elevate yourself onto your tiptoes and reach your right arm up as high as you can to grab the doorknob. You turn and push the door open, grunting from the effort. When the wooden door swings wide, the world outside is full of light—almost blinding. You squint, but can only make out a few things: the beams holding up the front porch, your sister’s bike, and the house across the street where you sometimes go with your sister to play on the Slip and Slide. You hurl yourself out the door, unsure where your feet will land. The concrete porch is cool and firm under your bare feet. You patter down the length of the porch, across the driveway, and into the warm, wet grass between your houses. You hear your father and your sister playing in the backyard sandbox. The quiet roaring sound of sand falling from a bucket reaches your ears. The grass is wet from the sprinkler your father ran earlier today, and your foot slips on a clump of slick grass. You stumble forward, but catch yourself, pushing yourself back up to a standing position before you start running again. Your palms are wet with moisture. Nothing can stop you. When you get to Ethel’s house, you throw one leg up onto her concrete porch, pulling the rest of your body up behind you. There are stairs on the other side of her porch, furthest away from your house, but you do not have time for stairs right now. Your breath is heavy and you feel your heart beating in your chest under your playsuit and inside of your ears. You raise your tiny fist and throw it against Ethel’s front door. Usually, you hug Ethel and run inside the house towards the kitchen, but today, you turn around, fully grown, your hips wide, your breasts full, your hair long and billowing wild around your face, to see that your mother is watching you from the front porch. She smiles at you, still in her apron, the front damp with watermelon juice, waving. She looks so much like you.
You see her.
You see yourself.
You, still your mother’s child, raise your arm and wave.