My Mother in the Big City of Paranoids

My mother had a habit of calling early in the morning. The earlier the better. The phone would ring and every time I’d answer, I’d hear: “YOU have a collect call from…” and then my mother’s totally frazzled voice: “Eliza!!”

My mother was still living at Bobby’s consignment warehouse. It’d been almost two years, and she hated it more than ever. Who could have blamed her? It was enormous and dark and scary. She didn’t have a normal shower—my mother, of all people, had to bathe in the sink. And at night, she would hear voices and drinking was the only way to drown them out.

And then my mother’s dog Tyler was killed, a little terrier she’d found, emaciated and homeless. He’d roamed into the warehouse one day and my mother fed him and they quickly became best friends. Until Tyler made the mistake of falling asleep behind Bobby’s back tire, and the rest was gruesome history.

My poor mother was so upset, was sure Bobby had done it on purpose. But Bobby felt terrible. He called, begging me to believe it was an accident. And I believed him, but I think that’s what led to my mother’s bigger breakdown. And then one morning, I got the call:

“Bobby kicked me out!”

“What do you mean?”

“What the fuck do you think I mean, Jessica? He kicked me out! I’m at the bus station… I’m homeless!”

My heart began to erupt with acute anxiety. 

“Why? What happened?”

She could barely talk. 

“Were you drinking?”

“No, I wasn’t drinking! I haven’t had a goddamn drink since I gave him my motherfucking word!”

“Well,” I prayed, “it must just be some kind of a misunderstanding.”

She continued sobbing. Really, I wasn’t in the mood for any of it. I just wanted to get dressed, get on the train, and write about myself in my journal like I always did. 

“Mother… I don’t know what to do. I have to get to work.”

“Well, I think you’d better call in sick.”

“Mother, you can’t call in sick when you work on Broadway.”

“Jess, I need your help! I’m homeless!!”

I sat down and stared at my reflection in the turned-off computer monitor, smoothing my furrowed brow as my mother cycled into another round of gasping and spewing.

“Okay, okay, let me talk to him.” 

Silence.

“Okay?”

“Go ahead,” she said in a tiny voice.

“Call me back in ten minutes.”

“I’m sorry I’m such a terrible burden on you.”

“You’re not,” I lied.

“Yes I am. But it isn’t my fault,” she said in a teenier voice.

“I know, Mother.”

“Do you?” she asked, doubting my comprehension of the power of the United States government.

“Yes, Mother. I know.”

I hung up with my mother and dialed the warehouse. Bobby answered in his thick cotton drawl. 

“Bargain Bobby’s. Bobby Vance here.”

“Hey, Bobby…”

He sighed. “Heya, Jessy.”

“My mother just called. She’s at the bus station.”

“Jessy, your mama’s gonna be the end of me. I just can’t have it anymore. I just can’t have her hootin’ and hollerin’ all night long, the neighbors callin’ the police night after night. They’re talking about evicting me! They wanna shut me down!”

“But I don’t understand, my mother said she’s not drinking.”

“Darling, I threw two more bottles down the commode the other day, and she chased me half down the road screaming she’s gonna sue my ass for trespassing!”

“Well, maybe they were old. Maybe…”

Bobby interrupted, “I have tried my damndest to help her, Jessy, believe me. Jesus, I have. But I just can’t do it anymore, honey… I wish I could. I really do… But I got a business to run, Sugar. Not a halfway house.”

“But she’ll be homeless!”

“Well, Sugar, I hate to say it, but maybe she’ll get some help. Being here is only enabling her.”

It was useless. Bobby wasn’t budging. So I decided to cry. “Please, Bobby. Please give her one more chance!”

“It’s the best thing I can do for your mother… and for myself.”

“Okay,” I said, “I understand.” And I clicked over to accept the collect call and told my mother the news.

“That motherless fuck.”

“You lied to me, Mother. You said you weren’t drinking.”

“I’m not drinking!”

“Well, Bobby said otherwise.”

“I had one drink… last week. That’s it.”

“But Mother, you’re not supposed to be drinking at all.”

“Honey, when you’ve got an electromagnetic torture device burning off your genitals, then we’ll see what you have to drink.”

“Okay, alright. Well, we’ll have to come up with a plan,” I said. “‘Cause Bobby’s not budging.”

My mother was silent. Except for the suction of her lips wrapped like a tourniquet around her True Blue. “Well… call my stupid fucking family. Tell them I’m dying of AIDS.”

“Mother!”

“Fine, make it MS.”

“Mother!”

“What? I need some fucking money and I need it now!”

“What about Frank?” (Frank, the very wealthy married man my mother dated years earlier.)

“I left him a message to wire me something. I’ll go over there in a little bit to see if anything came. But in the meantime, call my fucking mother! Give her HELL, Jessica!”

I hung up and dialed my grandmother. “Hel-lo-oh.” She always sang when she answered the phone.

“Hi grandma!”

“Hello, darling!”

My grandmother was in a particularly good mood because the lemur at the zoo had had babies. And when she was done talking about the detailed process of bottle feeding them all, I told her about my mother, and she breathed that long, drawn out breath. Kind of the same as my mother’s, but without the tar and nicotine. 

“Honey, can you please speak up and enunciate? I can’t understand a word you’re saying.” Eunice hated hearing about my mother in crisis.

“My mother is homeless,” I said slowly and loudly. “She neeeeeeds caaaaaaash.”

There was a pause. And then her response, which was always the same: “Your mother needs to be in the hospital and there’s nothing that I nor anyone else without a prescription pad can do about it.”

I wanted to ask if there was a way to get her a spot at the zoo, so that someone might take care of her, too. But I didn’t, of course. And after some more of that breathing, she said she’d mail a check for one hundred dollars. “I’m sorry. I wish there was more I could do. I really do.”

“Well?” my mother asked.

“She said she’ll send a hundred dollars.”

“A hundred dollars, huh.”

“It’s better than nothing.”

“Did you tell her she could shove it up her motherfucking ass?”

“Yes, Mother, I said those exact words.”

She started crying again. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Let me think.”

“I don’t have time for thinking, Jessica.”

I knew what she was getting at. And I knew if I didn’t bring it up first, she would hold it against me for three thousand years. “Well,” I said, clenching my jaw, “I’d of course suggest you move in here, but I’ll have to see if it’s okay with my roommates.”

“It would only be for a few days, just until I figure out where to go next.”

I looked around my tiny room, imagining that voice attached to a body. Me on a blanket on the floor and her in my bed, screaming at the government to leave her the fuck alone. I held my breath. “I’ll ask.”

“Good,” she said.

“Call me back in fifteen minutes.”

“Make it five.”

I ran the scenario back and forth in my mind. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if she came. Maybe we could keep each other company, run together through the streets of NYC as a team, making our dreams come true. But then again, what if her emergency lasted for the rest of my life? Driving her back and forth to the ER while my own aspirations remained stuck in my mind for eternity?

My roommates already weren’t fans of my mother, on account of her calling our number collect every day. In the kitchen, they were both standing at the counter, dressed the same, in worn jeans and t-shirts, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, discussing some movie they’d just seen.

“Hey guys, ah, what would you think if my mother stayed with us for a couple days…?”

They looked at me, looked at each other, and then back at me, with their jaws kind of hanging limp. “You’re kidding right, Jess?”

“Well, not really. She’s kind of in a bind.”

“I don’t know. Sounds like a disaster,” said one roommate.

“What if she freaks out and… thinks I’m in the FBI?” said the other.

It was obvious neither of their mothers had chips in their brains.

“Really, Jess,” my roommate said, attempting to sound sincere, “I don’t think it would be a good idea. You understand, don’t you?”

And I did understand. But at the same time, I was beginning to understand the bigger problem of the world—how much easier it is to help people in theory than in practice. As soon as I walked away, they continued where they left off in their previous conversation, and before I reached my bedroom the phone had already started ringing.

“I’m sorry, Mother,” I said. “They said no. And the lease is in their name.”

I hated hearing her cry. It gave me a leak in my chest that spread over my whole being.

“What am I going to do?”

“Let me think,” I said. “I need to think. Call me in five minutes.”

“I don’t have time to call you, Jess. Just think now.”

I thought about when I was little, how having an unusual mother was a novelty. Something to write about in my journal, to commiserate about on the playground. I was starting to wonder if I’d somehow willed my mother to be insane just to have something to talk about with people so they’d feel badly and want to adopt me, or at least want to be my friend. But this was too much. This, I couldn’t handle. 

Now, I just wanted her better. I wanted a mother who was of the earth, not of the government. A mother who was a vegetarian. A mother who knew how to make tinctures. A mother who could give me advice on how to make seitan. But how? Where could she go? Somewhere with space. Somewhere she could wander, other than the aisles of second-hand merchandise at St. Vincent De Paul’s. Somewhere with quality people. Vegetarian people. People who made bonfires…Yes! Of course! The yoga ashram! My mother could become a Buddhist nun! Teach yoga! Have long flowing hair and wear it in a braid! She could write a best seller—How I Beat the FBI with a Tabla Drum! That’s it!

“Mother! I’ve got it!”

“What?”

“The yoga ashram!”

She hacked up something from her lungs. “What about it?” she snapped.

“We’ll send you to the yoga ashram!”

There was silence on the other end, then another deep drag on her True Blue.

“Isn’t that a great idea?”

“What yoga ashram?”

“The one I go to!”

“Doesn’t ring a bell.”

“It’s Upstate, just a couple hours from here!”

Silence.

“What do you think?”

“It doesn’t sound like the Shangri-La.”

“You’ll love it! You’ll learn to do yoga!”

“Great.”

“You’ll meditate! Feel soooo much better!”

There was another puff. A long one.

“How about I call the swami and ask?”

Silence.

“Okay? Okay! Call me back in ten minutes.”

“Make it five.”

I wasn’t sure if Swami Padma really liked me or not, but he knew me well. I attended his classes regularly, even his non-yoga classes about the Bhagavad Gita and the classes on how to remove impurities by using a neti pot and then drinking a ton of water and throwing it back up in a bucket.

Swami Padma picked up the phone sounding in a hurry to get off. I explained with urgency a less freaky version of my mother’s situation and he sighed. And then he sighed again. Or maybe he was yogic breathing. “Fine,” he said, “she can come.”

“Really? Oh, thank you, Swami!”

“On a trial basis.”

“Oh, thank you so much, Swami!”

“Guess what, Mother!”

“What.”

“You can go to the ashram!”

My mother was silent.

“Aren’t you excited?”

“Thrilled.”

“I thought you’d be excited!”

“Well, I suppose it’s our only option.”

And that was that. I gave my mother the directions and she hopped on the next bus, ashram bound.

For the following two days, I heard nothing from my mother. I was really, really hoping this was good news. But on the third day, I received this message: “Hello… hello… ah…  Jessica? Ah… Swami Padma here… Ah… Please call me at once. At the ashram. Thank you.”

It didn’t sound like good news. Not at all like he was calling to rave about how my mother miraculously cured Swami Baba’s gout with her homemade fermented burdock tincture.

I dialed the ashram as fast as I could.

“Swami Padma, please.”

“Hold on.”

I began pulling long strands of my cuticles, drawing blood, preparing for the inevitable.

“Yes, Jessica…”

“Hi! I got your call!”

“Yes, yes. Uh… this is not working. At all. Your mother refuses to do yoga. I don’t know what to say. If you are going to be at a yoga ashram, you must do yoga.”

“But isn’t she helping with the housework?”

“Yes, I suppose…”

“She’s an excellent cleaner, isn’t she?”

“She cleans fine. But she won’t do yoga.”

“Well, how about keeping her on as the janitor?”

“We have many people who clean.”

“Hmm.”

“And the smoking… She smells like a chimney.”

“She does?”

“People are complaining of secondhand smoke coming from her clothes.”

“Are you sure?”

“And she won’t take off her shoes…”

“I see.”

“And the liquor—we can’t have liquor in the ashram. Her roommate is very upset.”

“Oh god. Well, can we…”

“And she ordered in takeout…. Hamburger.”

I gasped.

“This is a vegetarian environment.”

“Oh my god. Well, I’ll talk to her. I don’t think she knew. Please, Swami… Please can you give her another chance?”

“No.”

I went to work that evening feeling completely disoriented, knowing that my mother was more than likely nearing my proximity. Then, I heard my name over the backstage intercom: “Jessica! Phone call at the stage door!”

“Darling?! It’s me! I’m at the bus station!”

“You are??”

“I only have enough coins for a minute. Your people wouldn’t accept my collect call. But I wanted you to know that I’m taking the next bus to Port Authority. I’ll be arriving at 2:30. Please meet me as soon as you can! I just need a place to stay for a couple days. I’m sure your roommates will understand. Love you honey! See you soon!”

“Wait!”

Click.

I knew there was no way she could stay at my apartment. No part of myself could have handled it. This left me less than two hours to figure out a Plan B. I called every hotel in the area. The least expensive place I could find was about half my paycheck per night. But I said fuck it, it was worth it. So I booked two nights at the San Carlos, just blocks from the Palace Theatre. And after the matinee, I carried my bundle of nerves over to Port Authority, feeling like a file cabinet with legs. 

I hadn’t seen my mother since she’d temporarily moved into my college dorm room two years earlier, the longest I hadn’t seen her since we first met.

Port Authority was crowded. I chewed my cuticles and waited, until out of the corner of my eye, I saw a figure making a beeline right toward me. I waited till she was large enough to greet, but before I had a chance to say hello, her arms were wrapped around my body and she was sobbing. It was the first time I remembered being held by her and I didn’t know what to do, so I just stood there, my arms flanked at my side, feeling totally disconnected from myself, from her, and everything else.

“My baby!!!” she yelled as she pressed me to her bosom, a place that felt not at all familiar. “Oh honey, it is sooo good to see you!”

Something on my mother’s breast was pricking my face, but she was holding on so tight, I had to surrender to the pain. And Swami Padma was right, she absolutely reeked of cigarettes. When she finally let loose, I realized what had been stabbing my cheek. All over her jean jacket were little trinkets. 

“Do you like it? I made it from treasures I found at the warehouse!”

My heart didn’t know whether to melt or freeze thinking of my poor mother, all alone, searching for something special in that giant junkyard. “It’s very unique.”

“What do you mean, very unique? It happens to be the most unique jacket around! And if you’re lucky, I’ll let you have it!”

Really, I was taken back by my mother’s appearance. Growing up, she’d always dressed so elegantly—expensive designer clothing that she’d either lifted or found for pennies at thrift shops and house sales. To borrow something of my mother’s was a huge deal. 

I remembered being surprised by the initial transition when she first moved to Charlotte—the floral dresses and sandals. But this, I could not have predicted: the purple scarf tied around her head; a necklace, made of rope and spray-painted silver, like some sort of travel noose; the charm jacket… It was not quite ‘homeless person.’ It was more ‘I don’t give a fuck’ combined with passion, artistry, and limited resources. But at least some things were recognizable—the True Blue ciggies, for one, and the sunglasses, and her red nails, which were still, as always, perfectly manicured.

But it was still somehow refreshing to see her. And I smiled sincerely. 

“It’s good to see you,” I said, and I meant it. After all, I was my mother’s only child. This was the only person on planet earth I was an only person to. We were each other’s only person. In many ways we were all we had in the world. And realizing this gave me not only a feeling of horror, but that other kind of feeling I always felt when I was with my mother, even when she was messing everything up. That tinge of something nagging at whatever it was that held my bones and tissue together. A gushing of something warm and fuzzy that hit me right in the chest and inched its way up my throat, gagging me.

My mother’s bag was on the ground. The same well-used duffle bag she’d been carrying for years. It was stuffed so tightly, it looked like it could have exploded, injuring everyone in its radius. 

“Well,” I said, “let’s go. I only have a couple hours before the second show.”

“I understand.”

I bent down to pick up her bag, glad to have something to do with my hands, hoping it might get rid of that nagging feeling, but I could barely carry it. 

“Jesus Christ, what the hell’s in here?”

“Everything I own,” she laughed.

So my mother grabbed one strap and I grabbed the other, and together we lugged it up the stairs and outside into the bustle of 42nd Street where I watched her breathe in the air and gaze out toward the horizon as if she’d reached the promised land.

“I think we’d better take a cab to the hotel. This is just too heavy.”

“We, my dear, are going out to lunch. My treat!”

“Really?”

“Frank wired me three hundred bucks.”

“Wow. Thank goodness for Frank.”

“No kidding. On the bus, I wrote a letter to the pope asking that he be canonized.”

We walked to a nearby Chinese restaurant and sat down at a small table with horoscope placemats. I was a rat. My mother was a snake. Neither compatible nor incompatible. Nothing we didn’t already know.

“You look beautiful, honey.”

“Thank you. I wish you’d take off your sunglasses so I could see you. All I can see is my reflection.”

“They’re prescription.”

“Just for five seconds…”

She lifted them off her face and counted to five and lowered them back down again. “Go ahead. Say it. I look like shit.”

“No you don’t,” I lied.

“It’s okay. You can tell the truth. I look like someone who’s been crying hysterically for three years straight.”

“Nothing a little concealer can’t fix. I’ll grab you a couple from the theater.”

“Thank you, darling.”

We were given our menus and our hot tea, and then my mother began unloading the tales of her ashram adventure.

“Oh, Jessica… They were just rude as can be!”

“How so?”

“Well, for starters, no one showed me to my room. No one helped me with my bags…”

“Well, they don’t have a concierge, Mother. It’s a yoga ashram.”

“Well, they were extremely unwelcoming.”

“Maybe because you wouldn’t take off your shoes.”

“Why should I take off my shoes?”

“Because shoes are dirty. And you’re not supposed to bring alcohol into a place like that, either.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s a yoga ashram, Mother. You’re supposed to be intoxicated by the awareness of the moment.”

“Well, honey, I needed something a little stronger than the moment. I was on a goddamn Greyhound bus for twenty-four hours, I needed to unwind.”

“Well, the Swami said it upset your roommate.”

“She could have used a drink.”

“And there’s no smoking in an ashram, Mother…”

“I had my head out the window.”

“Well, your roommate didn’t like it.”

“It was the only thing I could do to drown out her B.O.”

It was becoming increasingly evident that my mother was not the Buddhist nun I hoped she’d be.

“They wanted me to break my back cleaning the shit off their toilets, and then touch my toes. No thanks. I never met a bigger bunch of sadists.”

I guess she had a point.

“Well, you could have tried it.”

“Honey, yoga’s kind of the last thing on my agenda right now, no offense.”

“Well, it might have helped you to relax.”

“Honey, when the government is finished with their program, then I’ll be able to relax, okay?”

“I guess you’re just not yoga material.”

“I’d like to know who said I was.” 

My mother reached into her purse and pulled out one of those outdoor grill lighters, sending a three-inch flame into the air. I opened my mouth to say it, but the waitress beat me to it. 

“No, no!” she said, running over, “So sorry! No smoking here!” The woman held out an ashtray, waiting for my mother to use it. 

“Mother,” I explained, “you can’t smoke in New York anymore.”

“Why the fuck not?” she muttered, inhaling as much of the ciggie as would fit in her lungs.

“I believe it’s got something to do with cancer.”

“Oh, Christ,” she said, exhaling sloppily and pressing the butt into the tray which the woman was trying to hold steady.

While we ate, we discussed the same thing we’d been discussing for the past three years: The Government, how Bobby was in on the whole thing. How he’d been speaking to the myriad of agents who visited the warehouse every day to assess her.

“I don’t know, Mother. How do you know those guys aren’t just his friends?”

“Because they have teeth, Jessica. Bobby doesn’t have friends with teeth.”

Really, I was not in the mood to talk about the government. I was tired to death of my mother’s favorite acronyms—the FBI, the CIA, the ACLU, the DEA, the ATF—each letter sent spasms to my brain. It’s not that I didn’t feel bad, or concerned. It’s just that I’d heard enough about my mother’s Program. In fact, it’d been re-run so many times in its entirety, commercial free, that I knew it by heart, forwards and backwards. And if I were so inclined, could have sung it in any key.

“Jessica!”

“What?”

“You’re not listening!”

“I am so!”

“Oh, fuck…”

“What now?”

My mother adjusted her sunglasses, and then with shaky hands began searching through her purse.

“Did you forget something?”

“No honey,” she said, her voice suddenly more jovial. She snuck out a piece of paper and began writing, something she slid covertly across the table. ‘WE ARE BEING MONITORED.’

Oh lord. Here we go again.

My mother looked around to make sure the coast was clear, then began writing again: ‘See those men in black suits?’

I started to look but my mother kicked me under the table.

“Ow!”

Then she slid another piece of paper under a napkin.

‘They’ve been following me since Charlotte.’

I wrote back, ‘Were they at the ashram?’

She shot me an annoyed glance. I sighed.

“So, darling,” she said in a perfectly normal voice, “tell me something new!” It was a cover-up of course.

Being with my mother had begun to feel like being in a detective novel with no ending. She seemed to fancy herself a female Colombo (she always did adore Peter Falk in that show). But I, on the other hand, felt more like a Fozzie Bear who’d accidentally walked onto the wrong set, where a drunk director insisted I stay and just go with it.

A few minutes later, the two men in black suits passed our table, said hello, and left the restaurant. My mother gave the I told you so look, leaving me to wonder, do people usually say hello like that to strangers, or had they noticed we’d been staring? I was almost getting paranoid myself until my mother started crying and grabbing for her chest.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m okay, darling,” she said. “Don’t you worry… I’ve had palpitations before.”

I tried to have more empathy this time. But before I could even attempt to console her, she began snapping her fingers like an angry flamenco dancer for the waitress, who arrived right away. “I’m having a problem…” my mother explained, “I’m okay… no need to be alarmed… but… I need a shot of vodka. Now.”

The waitress looked confused, just stood there with a smile on her face while I nervously shoved an egg roll down my throat. 

“Honey,” she said to the woman, “I need a SHOT of VODKA! I’m having a fucking problem!”

The young woman suddenly stopped smiling, scurried off to the bar and began speaking very fast in Chinese to a man who looked like the manager. It was obvious they weren’t used to people like my mother. This became more evident when the woman returned with a glass filled almost to the rim with straight vodka. My mother didn’t make reference to this though—she just sipped and sipped until her shoulders deflated and her breathing calmed.

The woman returned to see if my mother was okay, and my mother nodded as I smiled, thanking her profusely.

“Jesus, Jessica. Why don’t you just offer her one of your kidneys.”

After lunch we took a cab to the hotel. My mother examined every square inch of her room. Not to look for bugs, but because she was so excited to be in a hotel. “Wow!” she said, clasping her hands together like a kid. “It’s just like The Plaza! Oh, can’t you call in sick?!”

“I can’t, Mother.”

“Why? Can’t they do their own goddamn makeup?”

“If they did, I wouldn’t have a job.”

“Oh, well, okay.”

“I’ll be back just as soon as the second show’s over.”

“Very well, darling. You be careful!”

I left my mother alone and walked as fast as I could to the theater, hoping the wind would blow away all the confusion I was too tired to make sense of, and made it to work just in time to do the makeup of the guy who played the same part every day eight times a week in the story that had been remade every year since god knows when. And as Belle wailed again for the seventh time that week, I want much more than this provincial life, it was a relief to know I wasn’t the only one stuck in such a repetitive cycle.

After work, I took a cab back to the San Carlos. My mother was wide awake, pacing around in a nightgown with sunglasses, a bit tipsy. “Oh, am I glad to see you! How was yourrrr niiiight?!”

“Good,” I said. “How was yours?”

“Incredible,” she said. “I took my first real shower in over two years. I feel like I’ve been baptized.”

I smiled, sat on the edge of the bed, and noticed all her belongings hanging neatly in the closet. It almost made me cry to see the care she’d taken. It’d probably been just as long since she’d had a real closet.

“Well, I hope you’re not tired, darling, because we have a busy night ahead of us.”

Our job, my mother explained, was to find her a new place to live so that she could start over, yet again. This made me a bit nervous because it sounded like an all-night phenomenon, and I really did not want to sleep there. 

Just the thought of lying next to her for hours filled me with more heartache and panic than I could handle. I felt terrible, especially because I hadn’t seen her in so long, but I just couldn’t do it. I started thinking of excuses for why I needed to go back to Brooklyn. 

“You know, Mother, I just remembered I have a suitcase you can have! It’s much bigger and in better shape than this one!” 

She must have read my mind. “You can’t leave here!” she said, staring at me through tinted plastic, “I’ll be worried sick about you traveling to Brooklyn in the middle of the night.”

“I’m not leaving yet. And don’t worry, I do it all the time.”

“Very well. If you must.”

I thought about all the times I’d wanted her attention when I was little. How I begged to sleep in her room. Begged to hold her hand. And now, here she was, wanting me, and I wanted to be anywhere else.

If we’d had a map we probably would have thrown a dart at it. But we had only one issue of Vogue and a newspaper. My mother paged through the newspaper and I thumbed through Vogue, looking at all the beautiful women, thinking about how I probably needed a new haircut, a new wardrobe, and maybe even some plastic surgery. I’ve always loathed fashion magazines for this reason. 

Then there was this giant photograph of a wristwatch, covered in diamonds and emeralds. “Who on earth would purchase such a thing, just to see the time passing by?”

“Not I,” said my mother.

Underneath the watch was a list of all the places where one could purchase it, and one of those places was Palm Beach, Florida. So I gave it a shot. “How ‘bout Palm Beach?”

My mother looked up, closed her newspaper and said the words out loud: “Palm Beach.” 

She then looked out toward the horizon which was really just a concrete wall and repeated the words again: “Palm. Beach.” And after a few seconds, she looked at me. “Perfect,” she said.

And just like that, she picked up the phone, called Greyhound to get departure times and ticket prices. And in less than twenty minutes, my mother’s life changed course yet again.

In a way I was envious. To just change your entire existence in a matter of minutes? That sounded exciting! And then, it hit me, this confusing wave of disappointment: my mother was leaving. My mother was going away again. And then what? What about me? What would happen to me and my life? I had no direction. No bus ticket. At the time, I had no idea what to do with my life other than to hope for others to recognize its significance.

By the time I left my mother’s hotel room it was one A.M. It took over an hour to get back to my apartment after all the train delays. And once I arrived, I wished more than anything I would have just stayed with my mother. 

I had wanted so badly to be home, but the place where I arrived didn’t feel at all like home. I sat in front of my computer, inhaling my mother’s perfume and ciggies, feeling choked by nostalgia. And then my roommate knocked on my door. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m okay,” I said, feeling glad someone cared to ask.

“What are you doing?”

“Just writing.”

“Is that good?”

I didn’t know for sure what he meant, but I said, “I think it’s good.” 

And then he said, “Uh, not to change the subject, but do you know where the mail key is?” 

And after I gave it to him and he closed the door, I had to laugh. Because it seemed without a doubt that nobody was ever there for me the way I wanted them to be. And I wondered if I was silly to imagine that others could ever really be there for one another. Perhaps meeting my needs wasn’t other people’s job. Just as it didn’t feel like my job to meet my mother’s needs.

And maybe that’s the biggest problem for children whose parents never met their emotional needs—because those children leave the house still looking for others to meet those needs. And when we see others having the audacity to meet their own needs instead of ours, our life feels like a farce that only we can laugh at in the loneliness of our minds. 

And it certainly wasn’t enough consolation to be there for myself. I wasn’t in the mood to meditate or listen to that voice of wisdom in my heart. So I just did what I usually did back then: prayed for a fantastic future and went to work figuring out what I needed to do to get there so I’d never need anyone ever again.

At six A.M., I received a wake-up call from my mother and arrived back at her hotel at 8:30. She answered the door in black patent leather heels.

“Are those your tap shoes?”

“Indeed they are. They have a marvelous tile floor in the bathroom. Thought I’d try out a little boogie woogie bugle boy.”

I handed her the suitcase.

“Oh, honey. Thank you so much.”

My mother began packing all of her things which were stacked in perfect piles on the bed.

“Is this really everything you own?”

“Yup,” she said.

“But… where’s my special box?”

“What box?”

“The one with all my stuff… the one you’ve been keeping for years, filled with my childhood memorabilia and important documents…”

My mother had that certain smile she gets, the one where her lips press together and her head cocks over to one side. “It’s gone.”

“What do you mean, gone?”

“I’m so sorry, darling.”

“But, where did it all go?”

“I have no idea. Write your congressman.”

“My congressman? My congressman has my baby teeth?”

“Don’t be glib.”

“But… those were my things! What would they want with my things?”

“I don’t know, Jessica.”

“My first attempt at my autobiography, my earliest poems, all my baby teeth, the letter you wrote about the ‘truth’ of my existence, with the ‘don’t open till I’m dead’ written on the flap… All of it, gone!?”

“Don’t be mad. It’s not my fault.”

It never is, I said to myself.

She knew the obsession I had with my things from the time my stepmother threw away so much of it. Since then, I hadn’t thrown away a single item I owned. I barely let a single experience go by without documenting it. I prided myself on being almost impossible to eliminate. Except for that one box that I’d tried getting ownership of, but my mother insisted she wanted to keep. That she enjoyed looking through it from time to time.

“Stop clenching, darling,” she said. “Just let it go. You’ll have an eternity without them. Might as well get used to it now.”

I took a deep breath, swallowed my grief. Maybe she was right.

I sat on top of the new suitcase so my mother could zip it up and we caught a cab back to Port Authority and got in line for her ticket. At this point my mother began sobbing. I touched her shoulder the way I’d seen normal people touch the shoulders of crying people—but it felt horribly awkward and she didn’t even seem to feel it. 

Instead, she looked at me and cried desperately, “Thank you so much, darling. I won’t forget what you’ve done for me for a very, very long time.” Then she kissed my cheek. I mean, pressed her lips right into it. I wondered if she had ever kissed me before with her lips. It felt so strange, unfamiliar. 

“God damn it,” she said, wiping her tears.

“What?”

“I don’t even have a fucking picture of you.”

That’s because you threw them all out, I thought. “I’ll mail you one, just as soon as you get an address.”

She ignored me, looking up and down the line of people waiting for their tickets. “Doesn’t anyone around here have a goddamn polaroid?”

“Mother!”

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I just really want a picture of you.”

At the gate, she grabbed me with both hands, sobbing uncontrollably. “I love you, Jessica! I love you soooo much!” And after she boarded the bus, she threw me kisses from the stairs, “You be careful in this big city of paranoids!!!” she yelled.

I tried not to laugh. “I will. Don’t worry.”

I took the stairs instead of the elevator. And as soon as I got to the street, tears came spilling from my eyes. Just for about fifteen seconds. Then, they were gone. But for those fifteen seconds, my heart broke, thinking about how no one wanted my mother. Not her mother. Not even me. She was difficult. Unaccommodating. Her bags were heavy, and she herself was a burden. She’d been kicked out of nearly every place she’d ever lived, but still managed to think she was better than everyone else. And yet, I still loved her. She was my mother, after all.

Unfortunately, Palm Beach had not worked out. After spending all her money on cabs looking for a place to live and a job and finding neither, she wound up having to sleep at the bus station. 

She called me at six in the morning to tell me the ‘funniest thing that happened.’ A cop had woken her up with his nightstick while she was sleeping on the bench, because he thought she was a homeless person. 

“Can you imagine? He thought I was a homeless person!” 

My heart broke into a million pieces. Never before had it occurred to me that homeless people are only ‘homeless people’ to people with homes. That to themselves, they’re just right in the middle of trying to get through a really hard time.

My mother met a friend at the bus station, a man familiar with government mind control. I could hear him playing “Puff the Magic Dragon” in the background. I could practically smell his body odor. 

“That’s not like you, Mother, to speak to strangers.”

“Oh Jessica, don’t you worry,” she laughed. “He’s harmless.”

My mother started hacking, like she had pneumonia. “Listen, Jess. I need some money. Call Bobby, okay? Call my mother, call my sister. Give ‘em HELL, Jessica!”

I made the calls again and everyone told me the same thing again, that my mother needed to be hospitalized. 

So I drove to the only open Western Union in Bed-Stuy and lost my patience just a bit with an uncooperative lady through thick bulletproof glass. I think I was just mad that I had to spend two hundred more of my own dollars on a deranged and selfish woman who threw away all my childhood memorabilia because it’d been bugged by the feds but kept her tap shoes.

In fact I felt so greedy and tired and sick of it all, that I actually called Eunice back and told her I needed to be reimbursed for the money. After all, she was the one who brought the lady into the world to begin with, not me. But when I hung up, I felt so guilty and ashamed of myself for taking care of my needs instead of anyone else’s that I could barely stand to be in my own skin.

At the crack of dawn my mother left the bus station to pound the pavement once again. But with her pneumonia and unique accessories, she had no luck. “Let’s just say I’m not especially wanted in this town.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I have just enough money for a one-way ticket.”

“Where are you going this time?”

“I’m heading west,” she said, sounding like an outlaw.

“Please be careful.”

“I always am.”

And with that, my mother was off to Sedona.

 

 

Jessica Laurel Kane is the author-illustrator of five books for children. She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Upstate New York with her husband and son. She is currently working on a memoir about her mother. www.jessicalaurelkane.com

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5 thoughts on “My Mother in the Big City of Paranoids”

  1. It’s difficult to figure out the right words to say about this because of the subject matter but I think it’s a great piece of writing, brave, insightful, with humor and truth and I appreciated having the chance to read it.

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