To California, With Love (Homage to Natalia Ginzburg’s, “He and I”)

by Tamuira Reid

She calls me in the middle of the night. I call her when I know she won't be home.

“How many floors are in your building?”

“What? Mom, I'm sleeping.”

“Tell me how many floors!”

“I don't know. Five? Six?”

“Okay good. As long as it's not a high rise. You know, they always bomb the big buildings first. You're better off moving to Brooklyn.”

She is round and smooth and old. I'm younger, harder, meaner. She's the clear blue rock you find at the water's edge, the one that has been caressed by time. I'm the piece of glass that cuts your finger, the broken cola bottle that you mistake for something else.

I still don't know what I want to be. I don't know where I want to live. I don't know if I'll ever make it.

She cries when no one is around. Dreams in private. Wishes things were different.

I smoke too many cigarettes. My mother has never had a single puff. I take long, poetic walks along the Hudson River. Her shoes give her blisters. I read books. She buys the audio. We listened to Sarah Palin's memoir on the way to Los Angeles last summer for my cousin's wedding. Hours of torture. My mother likes to be entertained while she drives.

I've had several boyfriends. She is a serial monogamist. I know when it is time to get out. She forgives too easily.

Mom likes Mel Gibson. A lot. “I can't stand him,” I tell her. “He's racist and conservative. His politics suck.”

“But he has such an amazing handlebar moustache. I love handlebar moustaches.”

“He doesn't have one.”

“Does, too.”

“Mom, you're thinking of Tom Selleck. Magnum PI?”

Lots of facts exist only in my mother's world. She is never wrong in her world. She is never late in her world. She is never depressed in her world.

She had the same job for twenty-five years. It was early when she'd leave, the sky still dark and quiet. I'd hear the bed slippers scuffling across the linoleum of our kitchen floor, smell hazelnut coffee brewing and eggs frying. Then there was the quick turn of a key and she was gone.

I think about leaving my job. How it would feel to pack a bag and head out on a bus somewhere. I've held the same teaching position for seven years now, longer than anything before. Longer than feels comfortable. I get scared of not moving.

I'm in my thirties and still do things to grab her attention. To make her proud. Applying for grants and fellowships I don't care about. Leading classes on scrapbooking at a women's prison, you wouldn't believe the stuff they talk about!, watching CNN and 60 Minutes so I can bridge the gap between her thinking and mine.

The New York thing held me over for a while. Mom thought it was so cool that she had a daughter living in the Big Apple. She sips pineapple juice from the martini glass I gave her for Christmas years ago, back when she was still drinking, the glass that makes her feel like a New Yorker, it's so fancy. New York is all Fifth Avenue to her. It's Versace pantsuits and wild cab rides, men in nice clothes and women who never seem to age. I don't tell my mother of the New York I know. Of crowded trains and roaches breeding in my oven. Of the teenage boy with the pretty gold eyes who was stabbed in front of the bodega last week.

She likes things neat. Containable. Accessible.

Clutter helps me write, I tell her. Clutter is beautiful.

But, clutter is not containable. It isn't accessible. Clutter makes life much harder.

Everything is boxes to her. Big plastic Target drawer sets, office filing systems. Shoe racks on the back of every door. A tupperware collection that both intrigues and scares me.

Her love comes to me in these boxes. In sets. In careful, premeasured does. Just enough to get me by.

We Skype. Over cheese and crackers. I think it must be a Romanian thing because everyone in my family likes cheese. I like to take thick slices right off the block. She cuts hers into barely there slivers and puts them on top of Saltines. She looks up at me from her plate, smiling. I swear she has the saddest eyes I've ever seen. All my mother's pain seems to swell up from the bottom-most point in her body, going, going and stopping in her eyes.

She laughs when there is not reason to.

I scowl until otherwise convinced.

I don't have a single smoke alarm in my apartment.

She has two in the master bathroom alone.

I wait until the smell is unbearable to empty the trash.

She gets off on recycling.

“You'd be amazed what they can make out of this,” she says, throwing an empty tic-tac container into the milk crate labeled “plastics”. I don't enjoy recycling with mom, but I oblige when I'm home visiting. Standing out on the curb in our nighties, oohing and ahhing over pieces of garbage. I wouldn't be surprised if she turned up on the beach one day with one of those metal detecting devices, scouring for buried treasures and only coming up with pennies.

My mother loves the ocean. It sings to her, she says. Her sailboat, Buffalo Dancer, sits in her driveway, boarded-up and collecting dust. A crew of neighborhood cats have now made it their home, stretching out under the sun. But she used to take that boat out all the time, even when I would tell her not to — what's your obsession with water? — even when the men she was dating would warn her that sailing without a man was dangerous. She'd laugh, grab one of her girlfriends instead, and they'd stay out for hours, managing the cold winter waves with ease.

She has lucid dreams. Dreams of far away places. Cities with beautiful men and beautiful architecture. Places where she can shine and be herself.

I have nightmares. Long nights of restless sleep, insomniac sleep. Someone is always chasing me. Everything is ugly and bad and hard. I had one of these nightmares last night. Mom and I were dining at Windows on the World. She was wearing her old blazer, the one with the leather elbow patches. I had my hair up. Glass began to shatter. Walls were crumbling and everything was coming apart. The building began to sway like a pendulum and Mom was crying. Don't worry, I told her. It's okay. I'm here.

I woke from this in a sentimental mood. It was noon. The light was pushing into my room, everything illuminated and soft. I called her, but she wasn't there.