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Let’s do this thing called life photo

I’m my mother’s best friend. I fear she is my only friend. My mother and I live alone together in the San Fernando Valley. We used to own two cats, both male, but they pissed the bed, my bed, so I kicked them out. My mother didn’t say anything when I slammed the door shut on their furry compact bodies. I made sure to lock it. She only squinted in my general direction from her perch on the couch before returning to Hallmark on the TV. 

I used to have a brother, which means my mother used to have a son. My brother up and left us three years ago. He walked one morning to school and never walked back. When I called him to ask where he was, he said he went where the WIFI’s better. My mother keeps my brother’s room just as he left it. She still feeds the cats too. The surviving one, anyway. The other one got ran over by a car. I wasn’t around to witness his killing. My mother puts one bowl of cat food out every night. She hides this bowl behind a bush in the front yard. She says she hides the dish from other animals, but I know she hides the dish from me, so I won’t be reminded of her inane sentimentality.

My mother and I are a lot alike. We have brown hair and the same rectangle body. She taught me how to give an outstanding back massage on an oversized teddy bear when I was in high school. She was kneading the teddy bear’s lumpy shoulders in small, circular motions, her thumbs applying firm but tender pressure, when she said to me “I give the best back rubs on the block.” I mastered the techniques she imparted to me that day. A week before I broke up with my second boyfriend, he wrote me a poem. In it he called me a “back rub angel.” This is the only thing I remember from our relationship. The few men I have dated all wanted to meet my mother. I never allowed them to meet her, but spoke of her often to them. I don’t think I have ever truly let anyone in aside from my mother. She is the inside of me. The idea of a boyfriend meeting my mother makes me squirm. To look at my mother is to look at myself cut and splayed on the table of an open heart surgery.  I wish my boyfriends had asked to meet my father instead. I would also like to meet my father. Sometimes before leaving for my morning walk, I look in the mirror and imagine it is my father looking back at me. But my reflection is that of a girl, not a grown man. I’m sharing all of this with you so you believe what I tell you. I can’t stomach it when people think I’m lying.

I often do upsetting things to test if people really love me. Mother and I never lie to each other. Instead, we hurt each other with our words. Or I hurt her with my words. She only says and does nice things for people. If my mother is moody, she walks around in silence rather than spreading negativity. Her silence makes me think negatively. She has never once greeted me without a smile. Her voice raises several octaves in saying my name. When I walk into our home, her hello rings out from deep inside the house in such a way I mistake this sound for church bells ringing.

My mother was adopted, and raised in a seriously religious household. The one request she asked of God when pregnant was that her child look like her. My mother looked nothing like her adopted family. She was a wild black horse in their field of praying white sheep. I think addressing me with love and excitement is her way of giving thanks to a God who listened. 

My mother says she outgrew pushing people away when she turned twenty-five. The year she turned twenty five was the same year she was cast in a Mexican soap opera. It was the year she met Leonardo DiCaprio. Leo was also living in Mexico at the time, filming Romeo and Juliet. Mother says she stayed up most nights partying and doing drugs with Leo, while Claire Danes, his Juliet, retired to her hotel room early to study lines. The process of acting makes no sense to me. Leo and Claire both performed Shakespeare equally well in the film.

The night Leo and my mother met, he asked her to come with him to his hotel so he could get his jacket. They were both shivering, shuffling on the dance floor. They ended up eating dinner together at the long mahogany table mere feet from his hotel bed. My mother sat at the head of the table, Leo sat at the other end. Pancakes for him, fish tacos for her. They talked for hours but if I asked her now to remember something they said, my mother doesn’t have a clue. She says she couldn’t remember a single word if her life depended on it.

My mother played a prostitute in the soap opera. She cut her hair boy-length for the role and wore blue contacts. I should mention she was a size 00, since my mother never fails to include this detail in all her stories of her life before giving birth to me. She says if she could, she would swallow a pill to meet her nutritional needs. In the soap opera, my mother looked like Winona Ryder but prettier. I think it is her favorite version of herself. She said she really “got somewhere” in her craft playing that role. My mother told me there was one scene in particular that stands out in her memory. It was the scene where she learned someone had killed her character’s brother. She lost her mind when filming this scene. She broke down in real tears and crawled across the floor of the set. She dry-heaved to the point of blacking out. She says her vision was filled with tears and black spots and It wAs BeaUtiful. My mother asked to die. The cameraman followed her across the floor, alternating between zooming in on her splotchy, mascara streaked face, and zooming out so the viewer could take in her barely clothed skeletal body convulsing on the floor. The director did not yell cut until my mother collapsed in a heap in the corner, mewling like a stray. They didn’t use the take in the show, but the DP did put the scene on tape for her to keep as a reminder that she once believed in something.

My mother cries in front of me more than anyone else’s mother cries in front of them. It's been a while since I’ve fact checked this. I used to have friends, but I stopped leaving the house a couple of years ago. My references have become outdated. I don’t miss people. I don’t miss them telling me what they think I want to hear or what they hope is true about me. People rarely imagine they are close friends with someone abnormal. When my fifth grade teacher chastised me for talking during class, I knew I was abnormal. There was no one seated next to me. I hadn’t realized I’d been talking. A day later a woman stared at me while I waited in line to buy a blue-raspberry slushie at 7/11. Two cars slowed down when driving past me on my long, slushy-slurping walk home. I guess I had been talking to myself those times too. I guess I’ve been talking to myself ever since. When I’m alone, that is, which I nearly never am.

Mother is supportive of my every endeavor. I trained to be a professional dancer from age five to twenty-one. During those years my mother learned every dance routine I learned so she could show me how best to move my body. My mother was the star dancer in the small Arizonian town she ran away from when she turned eighteen. Together we won six dance competitions, all held in Las Vegas, all with me dancing on a lit-stage mirroring my mother dancing in a dark audience. I am only a good dancer when it is my mother I am dancing with. We stopped dancing when I turned twenty-two because I hated driving to Las Vegas. The day I stopped dancing my mother donated all our dance mirrors, ballet bars, ballet slippers, and leotards to Goodwill. She laughed and asked What’s next? I stopped leaving the house because I liked spending time with my mother and myself more than I liked being around other people. The day I told her I no longer planned on leaving our neighborhood, that I would be living at home from now on, my mother bought me a book on gardening, some vegetable seeds, and a couple of chickens. The chickens died within a year from internal parasites but the squash are doing well.

One night before I never left home, I went to a party like a member of my generation. My childhood best friend Ventura took me with her, even though she didn’t have to since Ventura talks easily and abundantly to anyone every second of every day. Ventura is a second-generation Russian immigrant. As a child I wanted the generational trauma flowing through Ventura’s veins. I prayed for her trauma to leak out of her mouth and up through my nostrils into me. I craved being tied down and obligated to make something of myself the way her people’s horrible history demanded of her. Ventura’s mother set steaming cups of borsche in front of her most nights, yelling at her to eat and grow strong and train hard in ballet and acting class so that someday Ventura may stand tall, slim and shining for her people on an American stage. My mother is from Arizona. Cacti, wind and Church compose our DNA.

At the party Ventura introduced me to a few of her friends before she disappeared into a crowd of vampiric people who only recognize each other in the wake of a disappearing sun. There was a dj swiveling his jean hips to electronic music I didn’t recognize. I listen mostly to movie soundtracks. The party with all its skinny youth looked like a movie. I felt distinctly miscast. My dancing limbs weren’t making the sort of shapes I asked them to make. A fat, bearded man danced next to me. His brown eyes were wet. He screamed in every face that passed him. I screamed in his face “Do you have drugs” because I saw someone do this once on Youtube and I have always wanted to do drugs in the bathroom with a stranger. He must have been lonely because he said yes. He led me with one marshmallow hand to the bathroom line and we screamed in each other faces to pass the time. He screamed AAAAAAAAH at me and I screamed AAAAAAAAH at him, then he did it again but lifted his shirt over his head and I did it back but unwound the scarf around his neck and covered my face with it while screaming. We didn't look cool, but we felt alive. The drug was a powder we snorted in neat lines off his dead phone screen. It felt stringent in my nose. I was risking my life so I had a new story to tell my mom when I got home.

Enhanced, I bolted out of the bathroom, leaving the man and his generosity behind. My long hair fanned around my shaking head. I did a little shimmy, did a little shake with my body that felt wrapped in cotton. I thought to myself Now people know how I dance when I am happy. I danced until the music stopped making sense. Ventura leaned against the wall speaking with models. I smoked cigarettes and stared in appreciation at the beauty of all the girls talking about things that didn’t matter to me. No one seemed fazed by my presence or silence. Their mouths moved up and down, I thought they looked parched, I walked home. The walk home took 2 hours and by the time I got there I was sober and scared my mom would be mad at me for snorting drugs and coming home that late. Instead of being mad, my mom shouted Hello Sweetest from behind her closed bedroom door because she was up and had just got home herself from a long exhausting day of being a single, female business owner. Combing my hair and replacing my party dress with pajamas did not calm my racing heart or quiet the weird static filling my ears. Laying in bed, I felt my mother on the other side of the wall. I whisper yelled through the air vent between our rooms asking her if I could sleep with her just this once. She did not ask why, but whispered back through the vent Yes. I tip toed into her room, into her bed, and my mother spooned me. Her slow heart, her ratty damp bathrobe, the blue light from the TV were all I needed to enter into the mute land of sleep. I never wanted to wake from this night’s sleep beside her, I’m not sure I ever did.

My mother didn’t sleep under the covers of her king-size bed until this year. She stopped sleeping under the covers of her bed when my father left her for one of his students, an eighteen-year-old prodigy of his AP English Literature class. When my father and the eighteen-year-old moved to New York to be a writer couple, my mother began wearing tampons every day of the month. She said she felt better that way, she said she felt clean. But this year she downloaded a couple of dating apps and started having sex with younger men. Having sex regularly has inspired my mother to sleep under the covers of her bed again and I haven’t seen a tampon box in her bathroom since February. My mother makes sure to text me a couple of hours before she has “a friend over” so I can prepare. I prepare by setting up my old camping tent in the backyard. On the nights my mother has sex, I take the opportunity to sleep under the stars and practice my constellation knowledge. I tell myself long stories out loud so I won’t hear any sounds leaking from the house. I like the sound of my own voice. Sometimes the outline of a cat streaks across the tent’s walls, and I wonder if it is the shape of the cat that used to belong to me.

I don’t have a job. My mother says my work is the work of discovering the self. My mother runs a furniture repair shop. Her work is fixing the mistakes of others. This work is long and pays very little. When my mother cries, she’s usually crying about money. I hate when my mother cries about this because there is nothing I can do to help her, and, to be honest, the guilt I feel about living off my mother really is counterproductive to the work of discovering myself.

But boy do my mother and I make each other laugh. Once our laughing starts, it is very hard for us to stop. One time before leaving for school I said to my mother Lets do this thing called life. We didn’t stop laughing until the following morning. We even laugh sometimes in the middle of a fight. I know we have a good thing going when we laugh like this. Not everyone knows how to crack a good joke while angry. Not everyone knows how to make their mother stop yelling at them and start laughing with them instead. When I make my mother laugh during a fight I know she is grateful I am alive. I know she is proud of herself for making me.

My mother lies a lot to strangers. She lies while returning clothes to stores even after she wears them. She lies when she returns lamps even after lighting our lives with them. She even lies when she returns pillows and blankets she made love on. Mother has a hard time making decisions, and an even harder time deciding how she wants our house to look. I don’t tell too many people about my mother’s retail regrets. I know what she does is not right, but I don’t judge her for it. It is hard to know what you want.

My father was the love of my mother’s life. Now we don’t say his name. My mother has never once said a nice thing about my father. I have no idea why they fell in love, or if they ever were in love. I am thankful I am resourceful. I come to my own conclusions.

When I was looking for my old journals in the garage, I found a Christmas card my mother wrote my father. The card is handmade and has a picture of my mother wearing a sexy Mrs. Claus outfit on the front. She looks happy, like the person taking the picture loved her. In the card my mother wrote I only want our life together for Christmas, every Christmas. The fact my brother was not born yet does not escape my attention. My father was a rich man. My mother and him used to live in the Hollywood Hills. When they separated shortly after the birth of my brother, she had to move to a two-bedroom apartment across from Universal Studios. We lived off of his child support for a while, and when that ran low, she created the business she cries over today. My mother is a hardworking woman who would rather not work. If my mother loved my father for the life he gave her, then in taking his love elsewhere, he robbed my mother of the life she felt certain she had created for herself. Coming to terms with the difference between her life and his life was a hard adjustment for her to make. We expect so much of ourselves, of our lives, and most of all, of each other. Today my mother hates my father as much as she loved him back then. Her hatred for him is dark and messy and sticky like fake blood. Her love is love gone sour.

The only man I ever saw my mother kiss was a blonde on the set of her friend’s country music video. The man looked like a boy I used to watch on Disney Channel. During the shoot I sat reading by the craft table, occasionally looking up to watch adults in sexy farm attire munch on carrots and ranch. After lunch, the blonde man walked over to me and asked what book I was reading while he helped himself to a carrot. Between crunches he told me if I kept reading, I would grow up to be an artist like him. I told him I didn’t think I’d ever be like him, even if I wanted to. That night I watched him kiss my mother from the backseat of her car. Watching her lips smushed up against his lips made me feel like I had silly putty in my stomach. It was eleven PM, past my bedtime, but instead of sleeping I sat there watching my mother and this Disney kid press lips. Their mouths made wet sounds and their eyelashes fluttered. I sat still and experimented with not breathing. He brushed his well-manicured hands through my mother’s wavy brown hair. He cupped her chin lightly. I didn’t know my mother’s face could be held like that. I couldn’t look away. Mentally, I said “I Hate You.” (Please Don’t Take Her From Me). I watched them kiss in sloppy silence for fifteen minutes. When I got tired of staring at the weird kissing sculpture their faces formed, I screamed as loud as I had ever screamed before. I screamed I Want To Go Home Now, which ended their kissing. I didn’t see how the blonde boy’s face looked after kissing my mother, but I saw how my mother’s face looked. Her face looked raw and burned red in its fevered center while her skin pulsed with the end of possibility. She was dusted with sex and sparking against my denial. My mother looked like a dying star. She shined an inner light I had never seen before. I wanted to smother it. I can’t unsee her face like that, even now. She smoothed her clothing and avoided looking at me. She looked at him instead, like she wanted something from him, and I continued looking at her like she had just told me she never wanted me. The boy got out of the car after handing my mother a slip of paper with his phone number scratched on it. He retreated into the night, back towards the farm with his cowboy shadow sliding across the bushes. His broad back stays in my memory. Sometimes before bed I think of him walking away and tweak the image a little. I change him into a coyote backing away from headlights. I change him into my childhood friend, shrieking and running from me in a game of Hide N Seek. My favorite thought, though, is when I change him into a cat hiding from a little girl, as the little girl tiptoes closer and closer and closer still, going Here Kitty Kitty, Here Kitty Kitty in her little girl voice. The night my mother kissed the Disney Kid, we didn’t talk on the drive home. The next morning over bowls of heart-healthy Cheerios I broke our silence. I asked her for a cat. That night she bought me two.