The phone rings me into forgetfulness. A second of panic…who am I calling? My sister picks up.
And I’m back. This brand of greeting is not novel for her, by the way. She’s always spoken in unapologetic anvils that erupt from her mouth, right on top of the coffee table, and are always accompanied by a “I’m really doing you a favor…that thing was hideous!” look in her eyes.
“Blech.” I have a slippery fish-hold on folliculitis, so my disgust is vague and wanton. She opts to return in kind with silence, probably deliberating with her Diet Coke and menthol cigarette. I think about throwing in some kind of STD jab, but I don’t think it will cut through the smoke and aspartame in her kitchen.
“He gave me a prescription for antibiotics. Ma’s out getting them now.” At 26, she is light years from her hands on a steering wheel, and, in her own words, it “makes no never mind” to her. And my mother doesn’t mind. She invented what we call “chauffer parenting”.
“Why did you make her go alone?”
“She wanted to, and I’m sick.”
“Um, you’re not sick.”
If I strain I can hear another swig of Diet Coke. Our family possesses a preternatural mastery of guilt and regret, and each of us is dishing it out as fast as the other can take it.
“I took her to lunch.” Something else comes out amidst her minty puffing, but I can’t hear it, and neither of us wants to give voice to the recent past. We both know that my mother shouldn’t be doing this right now, but ingrown hairs and doctor’s appointments come on irrespective of the grieving process.
We abruptly and unceremoniously end the conversation (well, she does with a “I have to go soak this thing on my ass”) and I fall back onto the couch, my other confidante.
The realization of my sister’s laziness slaps me gently, like it’s rousing me from an attack of the vapors, and I stand in the middle of my living room. Two thousand or so miles and 11 years doesn’t dull the routines imprinted inside my eyes and ears. Subtext condenses and the story of her day clarifies.
No doubt they went to Doctor Bulotsky, our family’s pediatrician. I’ve no idea how or why he is still seeing my siblings, all in their twenties, but paramount to that, I’ve no idea why my sister insists on complaining that his office has been stocked with the same set of Lego pieces for the last seventeen years (“You can’t even pry some of them apart…years of snot!”).
After the appointment, they bickered in the parking lot about what to do next. More whinnying and haggling over destinations as my mother gets totally turned around makes several wrong turns, all punctuated by things like “You’re a nasty bitch”.
At a stoplight, a truce. My mother becomes someone else.
“Let’s go to Mee King.” Mee King Garden, the breeding ground for Chinese food’s distant and emotionally disturbed cousin.
“Ok” my sister says.
Another wrong turn, a correction, silence. My mother’s transformation deepens.
“Do you want a muscle relaxant?”
“Your Auntie Julie gave them to me at Grammy’s funeral.”
By this time my sister has realized too late what insidious trap my mother has set for her. She’s woken up on the train many stops from her own. She holds out her hand and receives a small oval-shaped yellow pill that my mother procures from thin air. They take them at the same time.
By the time they find Mee King Garden bobbing up and down alone on its waterbed of broken asphalt (its few cement and brick compatriots in the plaza long since evacuated), forty-five minutes have passed and with them any vestige of a salvageable day. It is three o’clock, and my two yellow-pilled lovelies ooze out of my mother’s car, ready for their Egg Foo Young and Spare Ribs, heralded by the sizzle and crackle of oil and made to order.
The less than verdant Garden of Mee King is possessed of two tables and six chairs, so they attempt to eat in the car, but are immediately claustrophobic. Two women under the influence and three Chinese food takeout containers will just about fill a Kia Sportage to capacity.
“It doesn’t itch anymore. I think my folliculitis is gone.”
My sister is off and running behind the Chinese food place, a patch of dumping ground woods. She turns back to get her fork, feels it in her mouth, turns back to the woods. Something there has caught her bleary, unfocused eye. It stands tall, grows out of the earth and bows towards her, brutal and gentlemanly. “It is something” she thinks.
My mother is not with her. She’s dropped her carton of ribs and is Medusa-ed by garishly pink pork on cement and shoe.
My sister sees this and takes four and only four steps back before discovering Ma’s stone form to be contagious. She notices that a sizable lock of my mother’s long, dark hair is caught in the car door. It’s resting like a lazy clothesline, too tired for tautness and too old for bearing burden.
My sister grabs her throat. She does not own this gesture. She retreats to the tall jutting form in the woods that still calls to her. Her arms wrap once, twice, three and four times around it-some kind of rusty sheet metal in the shape of a humongous foot. She feels it yield, wiggle in her embrace and she relaxes into it. She dares a look at Ma, now a reverse Rapunzel exposed to the elements and soiled by red number 5 and MSG. She grabs the giant’s foot even tighter. She’s fighting the yellow pill but can’t feel whether or not she’s pulling the sleeping Goliath or smothering him, deepening the slumber.
It’s a long time before she lets go. It’s longer before she feels the release.
By the time I finish telling all of this to my couch he’s fallen asleep and I’ve lost interest. I take my own yellow pill to abate the sensation of a more than life-sized toe on my back. I think about infection and make myself hear a voice. It says something about needing to be there, and needing to feel bad about things that never happened. The voice is soft but vast and tired and buried.
In minutes I can barely hear it over the opening and closing of kitchen drawers. I know I put that menu for Red Dragon in here somewhere.