My Mother on a Trampoline
I don’t have a key to my parents’ house. It’s been a long time, six months maybe, since I’ve come home, and it doesn’t feel right to ring the doorbell. The apartment building is brick and tall enough to blot out much of the setting sun. I lean against the railing flecked with old black paint and rust, favoring my left foot, and consider the doorbell. Upstairs the windows are open. My mother’s curtains, transparent and intricately patterned like the wings of some exotic bug, make flickering appearances on the other side. On my tiptoes, I can see the shadows of my brother Thomas and his pregnant wife, Mallory, who, even just silhouetted, looks angry and uncomfortable.
I’m late. It isn’t really my fault. The train out to Long Island at this time of day is never reliable – always a slow, strange ride. And there’s a storm. I spent the bulk of the ride staring at my reflection in the train window, imagining I was someone arresting to look at, that these folks thought me wistful and inaccessible because I have delicate hands and dancer shoulders. Or maybe my red hair, the one beautiful thing I inherited from my mother (although comparatively mine is more like strawberry blonde while hers is literally red like a brick), was wispy and slipped out of my ponytail elastic in the right places. Whatever the reason, I imagined I was a thing to be watched - an obviously cherish-able and mysterious item even to strangers - and I leaned my forehead against the window while the couple behind me quibbled about dinner, and the man to my left shotgunned a terribly concealed bottle of Jack Daniels from a paper bag.
The problem is that I’m always late, when I show up at all, for family gatherings, and I know Thomas is already talking shit about it; and maybe Mallory is telling him to relax. She is saying something like, “She has a lot on her plate, Thomas,” because that’s how she talks: in scripts of clichés that don’t really make any sense; and the whole family is sitting around the table with raised eyebrows and crossed arms nodding their heads like those bobble dolls my father has on his car dash.
Or maybe not. I take my cell phone out of my pocket, and before I hit “send,” Mom is standing in the doorway in a soft-looking, threadbare silk robe. She looks pale, almost as translucent as those kitchen curtains, but her face is smeared with garish shades of pink and purple eye shadows, rouge, and lipstick. Her smile is wan and puckered, and she leans against the doorframe with a dramatic malaise, her fingers travelling up the wood like the tips of a gangly branch. She is a sinewy and fragile marionette of a woman with too many teeth and not enough skin.
Last week was her second chemo treatment.
“I dressed up fancy for the cancer party,” she says.
My mother made online invitations. There were koala bears in the background. A month ago, when I came home between dance rehearsal and my bartending shift, it was waiting for me in my inbox.
Dear Thomas, Polly, and Mallory,
Yesterday a doctor told me I have breast cancer, so I have to start an intensive round of chemotherapy in seven days and cross my fingers I don’t have to have surgery. Don’t worry. I’m not dying. We would love to have you at the house on Sunday October 15 to celebrate my narrow brush with and escape from death, and to say farewell to my good looks (no woman looks good bald, now does she?)
And Polly, it’d be nice if you brought a date. ☺
I read it three times, and then slammed the laptop closed and sat on the hardwood floor, spread my legs and leaned over to touch the toes on my right foot. My hamstrings get tight when things are stressful. Then I freaked out and hiccup-cried into the phone at Thomas who assured me that he’d been with both of our parents just the day before and “for real, she’s going to be fine.”
“She couldn’t even call? She sent out invitations?” I sniffled, “What the hell?”
“Oh you know mom. Real feelings are hard for her.” We both paused for a while. “ You should go over there before October,” he said.
“Yeah, I know.”
But I never did. I had a few terse conversations with her on the phone, after which she’d hand it over to my dad and he’d say “Are you a famous ballerina yet?” and I would say “No, daddy, maybe tomorrow,” and then we would hang up. I went to rehearsal, I went to work, I went to sleep and I did it again until I got on the train this morning. This is basically how it’s been with my parents since I decided to move to Manhattan to dance. My mother maintains a constant stream of disapproval and passive aggressive distance while I resentfully refuse to make any moves to bridge the gap, and my father sits squarely in the middle paralyzed by his crazy love for the both of us. It is perhaps he that suffers the most between the three of us.
And right now to my mother who is ready to party despite being primed to maybe get one of her boobs chopped off I say, “Mom. Stop.”
“You’re late,” she says, moving out of the doorframe, and motioning for me to come inside, “and alone.”
“Yeah, well, the train…” but I already know it doesn’t make a difference.
“Just come upstairs,” she says and turns around to make the climb.
I follow her, my legs feeling like sandbags. My hurt knee is throbbing, reminding me that if I don’t want to blow my audition tomorrow, I should be at home with a frozen bag of peas on it watching reruns of Gossip Girl. Inside the house there is too much light in the kitchen - candles on the table, on the counter. The air is thick and wavy with lazy vanilla scented smoke. Maybe my mother is thinking of holding a séance. The whole apartment is hushed except for the distant hum of a television. I put my umbrella on the coat hook, my tote bag on the floor, and then shake my arms out of my raincoat. Dad walks over to take it from me before I can hang it on the other coat hook. He puts his hand on the small of my back, kisses my head.
“Glad you made it, cricket.”
This helps, this normal exchange. No one is dying when I am called cricket. I watch my father move down the hallway into the bedroom with my things. He has a heroic walk. Like a ball player.
In the kitchen Mallory is cutting onions with a large knife she obviously doesn’t know how to use. Her nose is wrinkled, her eyes wet - she is sporting a full-body snarl. Thomas reaches for the knife. “Let me, honey.”
Mallory drops the knife on the cutting board, says, “I’m pregnant, not incompetent,” and scuffles into the bathroom.
Thomas looks up at me. “She’s having an emotional pregnancy.”
I smile. “Clearly.”
It’s nice to have a sort of moment with my brother where he isn’t trying to remind me that he’s better to our parents than I am. It’s not very often that I feel like we’re on the same team.
My brother’s shoulders are slumped under his blue “life is good” t-shirt. He cuts the onions in slow easy movements, and I notice a bald spot on the crown of his skull. I wonder if he knows it’s there, and then realize it’s likely that our mother has pointed it out on multiple occasions. She worries about these sorts of things, so much so that by the time I was nine I was a professional calorie counter. This is partly why I’ve gotten as far as I have dancing. This is also partly why I let my brother be the better child.
Thomas looks much older than he is, and watching him cut these onions I feel worried about whether he’s actually happy. I reach my fingers into the bowl next to the cutting board and start noshing on the raw green beans inside of it. They make a loud crunch in my teeth, and Thomas slings a disapproving glance in my direction.
“What? I’m hungry.” I shrug and keep chewing. “So, how’s everything, you know, besides the stuff with Mom?”
“I dunno, Polly. Fine, I guess.” I reach for another green bean, and try to peek through the curtain out the window. The storm is picking up, and it sounds like Thomas is trying to pace his chopping of the knife to the beat of the rain. He’s not, but I think about how impressed I’d be if he were. I cast about for conversation topics, but I can’t bring myself to ask about whether Mallory still has morning sickness or his six figure paying job in the financial district. I guess, also, I’m waiting for him to ask how I am.
Instead he says, “You know it wouldn’t kill you to be around more. Mom really misses you. I can tell.”
I look at my feet, at the ugly yellow tiles on the kitchen floor, and say nothing partly because his directness threw me off a little bit, but mostly because I disagree.
Finally, I manage, “I work a lot.”
Thomas, my sweet, bossy, big brother looks at me with his head cocked to the left. Since he was a kid he had these giant eyes— perpetually disappointed and startled, giant eyes— the kind that could hush a room. Right now, they are this way for me, and all I can do is raise my eyebrows and cast a pleading shrug in his direction because, sure, it’s disappointing that I’ve conflated coming home with grovelling for my mother’s love and positive affirmation. Sometimes things are just like that, and it isn’t like I’m not disappointed, too.
“Will you finish these?” he asks pointing to the cutting board, and stalks off toward Mallory in the bathroom.
I don’t know what the onions are for. There’s some sort of roast in the oven, and potatoes boiling on the stove. Maybe for mashed potatoes.
Through the kitchen window I can see the tiny pool behind the apartment building that I used to swim in almost every day in the summers when I was a kid. Thomas is almost nine years older than me so instead of swimming he’d sit on the deck with my parents reading comic books while they smoked cigarettes and read the paper. In the pool I made up elaborate dance routines. Every twenty minutes I’d call to them to watch me, and they would lower their reading material and stare impatiently through their neon rimmed plastic sunglasses. I had such a small window in which to impress them, so I dove underwater and did handstands and somersaults with a desperate zest, my toes pointing out of the water in a perfect diagonal line.
When I surfaced they were always reading again, but I kept trying. After a few hours in the pool, I’d scamper down the ramp onto the deck and stand next to my mother, my hair dripping onto her magazine. She wiped the water off of the page and looked at me with puckered lips.
“Polly, you shouldn’t be such a show off. It’s off-putting.”
Later in the living room, I drink wine. My father has a beer. Everyone else has tea. Mallory, in better spirits, is talking about the baby whom she is considering naming Bianca.
“I still think Samantha is a better choice, dear,” my brother says.
“I want our baby to have an elegant name. You know, something meaningful. Like, if our daughter was a grilled cheese, and her name was Samantha she’d be made of American cheese and Wonderbread. Bianca is rye bread with, like, gouda and mustard or something like that. Get it?”
We don’t, but Thomas nods dutifully. “Sure, baby.”
“I obviously want it to be a girl. You know, my midwife says that if you have sex only on Wednesdays you’ll definitely have a girl.”
“Is that right? Is that what you did?” My mother wants to know. Thomas sits up and leans forward, and my father makes meaningful eye contact with me then rolls his eyes.
“Mom!” Thomas says.
Mallory changes the subject by saying to my mom, “They say the third trimester is just a dream, and I gotta say, I think they’re right! I really have never felt better.” It’s amazing how she speaks with such ease to my mother, and what’s crazier is that Mom is warm to her in return. Tolerant at least. My father and brother have gone into the kitchen to get dinner finished, and I am alone in my corner of the couch rubbing my sore knee, running through my performance for tomorrow while I half-listen to Mallory’s giddy chatter. My gaze settles on the coffee table directly across from me upon which there are potted, plastic daisies in real soil. This seems like something Mallory might have read about in a magazine giving advice to people who are bad with plants. Probably she and my mother made it together.
I imagine, for just a second, what it might feel like to be Mallory. Mallory, who doesn’t do much (she stopped having to work when she married my brother) but is at least about to perform her most basic biological function, probably knows little about being lonely. I bet her life is all right. Across from me, my mother’s body is resting on the couch, draping over it, really. It’s like somebody placed her there, arranged her like you would a few pillows, but she’s too light to make a dent in the cushion. Her eyes are dim though she’s trying to look interested. Even still, all grey and sallow, she is stunning in a preternatural way.
When she was nineteen Mom did a fashion shoot for Sears. It was the kind of thing where a talent scout spotted her in the mall and set her up with an amateur modeling contract. In the photo she wears a straw hat on top of her mountain of fire colored curls. She stands on a park bench in a yellow flowered dress and pointy heels. Her smile is as if she had saved up every millisecond of joy she ever felt and when the cameraman said “go!” she let it all escape her.
She kept one of the original photos on her dresser next to the upwards of fifteen tubes of red lipstick in slightly different shades. I’d count them when I stood on the stool next to her while she pinned up her hair, talking me through all the steps of primping. I don’t know how many times she told me about that day, hundreds maybe. By heart I could tell anyone about the photographer who had a blond mustache greying on the tips, how it was actually only forty-five degrees outside despite her summer attire and that they gave her celery, OJ and bottled water after the shoot. Sometimes the details she recounted were different, but every time she said, “It was the only time I ever felt like I had anything important to do, or anything valuable to offer.” Usually she’d be leaning into the mirror, cleavage making a timid appearance, dabbing her lipstick with a piece of toilet paper. Getting paid to be pretty made her feel like her “life was finally beginning,” she’d say. Then she’d end the story of her one photo-shoot long modeling career saying, “Then I was pregnant with Thomas, and that was that.” The subtle implication that her life has ended in some way then was not lost on me, even at six.
Strangely, it was around nineteen that I started to dance professionally which is when I would have to say my life really began. Things had been changing between me and Mom ever since I was chosen as lead dancer for Swan Lake in the tenth grade. At that point, I had been taking ballet since I was nine, and this was the performance where I knew I had done something spectacular. I knew that I had found my calling. Backstage my father blubbered into my shoulder about how proud he was of me. Mom handed me a bouquet of roses and said, “I’ve never seen anyone move more beautifully in my whole life,” but her voice was far away and bitter. Rather than feeling like I had finally done something good enough to make her proud, I felt like I had betrayed her in some way. She was silent for the entire drive home.
Dancing became a thing I had abandoned the family for, which is what she said and not what I felt like I was doing. I rarely ate dinners at home because I rehearsed long hours after school. I had performances on weekends, none of which she ever came to even though Thomas and my dad often did. Perhaps I disrupted my mother’s idea of the natural order of things by proving myself to be greater than unremarkable. I imagine these kinds of competitive relationships happen all the time, particularly with women like my mother who are beautiful, charismatic and get pregnant young.
I’m starting to get hungry, and just as I notice this my father brings me another glass of wine, himself another beer. I start paying attention to the conversation again. Mallory wants to know how Mom’s first round of chemo was. At the word chemo, my mother’s face pulls into itself, collapses like a crushed carton of milk. There’s a long pause before she says she doesn’t want to talk about it. This is a thing my mother does to add a touch of drama to whatever moment a group of people are paying attention to her, and I am immediately suspicious that this means she does in fact want to talk about it. I think, she just wants us to know that it was so difficult, that she is traumatized. I expect her to launch into the details within a minute, but she doesn’t, and then I realize that she’s legitimately in pain just thinking about it. I am a complete asshole. The wave of guilt is almost unbearable.
I lean forward, dipping my face into my wine glass, and in my mind I can see her in a weirdly big leather chair plugged up with an IV. I hope there is a doctor there who is tender with her even when he’s dumping a bunch of poison into her body. I bet my father read Popular Mechanics in the waiting room with sweaty palms. All of that gunk is in here, rolling around in her guts like some sort of sludgy tsunami. A death tsunami. My mother is sitting in front of me with a death tsunami sloshing around her gray doll-body and I can’t even come over for dinner every two months. I should have brought her Pedialite. I should have brought her some head scarves.
We sit a while until my father stands up and tells us dinner is probably ready. I’m the last to get up. For a second, because my knee is pulsing ominously and seemingly promising a failed audition tomorrow, my thoughts flit away from my mother and over to the fear that I will not make it as a dancer. I am twenty-three. I’m ten pounds heavier than I should be. My window is about to close. I cannot afford a bum knee. Then I watch as my brother holds Mallory’s forearm to help her waddle out from the confines of the couch with one hand resting on top of her belly as if it’s a thing that exists separately from her. I bet his hand is reassuring. In fact, I know it is. He used to hold my arm like that when I was learning to ride my bike. Then he turns to our mother, guides her to her feet, and she yields to him, grateful for familiar hands.
Thomas probably touches our mother often. They hug sometimes. He helps her up stairs. He may have even taken her to the doctor with dad. When they got home she probably threw up in the other room while he watched Dick Van Dyke or something and drank a diet coke. I sit alone in the living room for a minute before drifting into the next room.
At the kitchen table my father says Grace.
He is grateful and says it out loud, squeezing my hand with fingers on my wrists. We are all embarrassed by his naive devotion, his uncomplicated faith.
With my eyes closed I remember Swan Lake. I think about my mother’s face that I could see in the reflection of her car window, and am surprised at the force of my resentment. I go back to gracious thoughts. I love my dad. I am grateful for my dad. I think these thoughts so hard that I worry they might make my ears explode. When my eyes are open my mother is in front of me, sitting erect and looking like a bereft caged bird. Thomas fills her plate with mashed potatoes and corn and slices of meat, and I can see the sides of her throat working, pushing down the nausea. I motion for my brother to stop, and she picks up her fork, pushes food around then swallows the extra saliva in her mouth with a subtle gulp. When everyone’s been served we all start eating.
“Oh, you’re eating meat now?” she asks me.
“Yeah, my knee is acting up. I feel like giving it protein will help it heal.”
“Well, that explains why you’ve filled out a little.”
My ears are hot. I bite the inside of my cheek. She’s baiting me, and I know it. It’s unfair to respond defensively. It’s essential that I do not reveal that she has just hit me where I live. I try to think about how sick she is, how awful she must feel sitting in that chair while the chemo oozes into her veins knowing that it will make her unbearably ill. I think about how much I hate puking and how often she’s going to have to do it. I can’t begin to understand how scared she must be of it not working and then having to decide whether she should give someone permission to remove one of her breasts. I cannot admit how scared I am that it won’t work. The conversation drifts in other directions. Thomas just got a promotion at work. Mallory is considering getting involved in an urban gardening club. In my head I can hear Mom telling me that I’ve filled out as if it’s on a repeat tape loop. I try to replace it with thoughts like “my mother is very sick. I love my mother. My mother is very sick. I love my mother.” This is moderately effective, and by the time we get to dessert I’ve mostly calmed down.
“You know, Polly, I’ve been thinking that it might be time for you to consider what’s possible for you career-wise. You really have given this dancing thing quite a shot. We’re all very impressed with your tenacity.”
“Mom, I haven’t quit, like, the shot giving is still happening. I have an audition tomorrow.”
“Well, I just thought because of your knee…I’m just saying that you could open a dance studio perhaps. Teach little kids? Make some actual money? Just in case.”
“I don’t want to teach a bunch of fucking children, mom. I’m a dancer. I want to dance.”
“Polly…” my dad sets his hand on my wrist again, “not today.”
My mother puts her hand over her chest, displaying its blue and purple splotches. Her eyes dart around the room. I should apologize, but the best I can manage is to say nothing else. In some dark part of my belly I know that I am cruel. I feel it balled up inside of me like a black little animal.
For a long time, no one says anything. The room becomes an orchestra of eating sounds. We all lift our ice cream filled spoons, then cross and uncross our legs. My dad drinks his beer with a slight slurp. My mother is sighing and not eating, and I keep thinking horrible things along the lines of “she should’ve known I would react that way” or that she’s being dramatic to get attention again, but I suppose it’s her right to cry at her own party. I’m sure I’d do a lot of crying if I had breast cancer. At rehearsal my dance teacher often yells at me to get soft. “Unfurl, darling, unfurl. You’re so tight,” is what he says. So I try to get soft for my mother. I love my mother. My mother is very sick.
We got rid of the pool when I was eleven. There was a tear in the liner. My father got us a trampoline to replace it because I was really into gymnastics at the time. Once, at dusk, after drinking half a bottle of Chardonnay my mother climbed onto it. Her hair was pinned up in a curl pile on the top of her head, it was my favorite way that she wore it, and she shakily got herself up to standing in the middle of the trampoline. I watched her from the window, my hands on the credenza and my mouth half open. She was a total vision with the sun setting behind her in all kinds of pinks, purples and oranges, standing in cuffed sweatpants and a drape-y white t-shirt. She bent her knees and then jumped with a kind of lightness totally foreign to the rest of the ways she ever moved, and as she gained momentum the pins began to fall out of her hair. She just jumped with all of her hair flowing around everywhere, so close to flight like some majestic, mythical creature. My mother on a trampoline: poster child for joyful abandon, just like in the Sears photo. I don’t know that I have ever seen her intentionally have fun since.
Across the table my mother has wrapped her arms around herself. She has begun to cry, and is sniffling and swaying a little. This is the only noise. In fact, it’s so quiet that I can hear the fire eating the wicks of the candles.
“I don’t want to have cancer,” she wails.
The room comes alive a little, and we tentatively murmur wordless comforting noises as she pets a section of her own hair.
“It’s just all going to be gone,” she says. “I’m going to lose all of my hair.” My mother is an ugly crier. I know because I’ve inherited it from her. I imagine that her tears are toxic and full of chemo, and I think “God, that is horrible,” because her hair really is beautiful. She probably has no idea who she is without it.
“DO something,” I mouth to Thomas, but he is looking at Mallory who is looking down at her lap. I turn to my father whose face is twisted with helplessness.
She cries a little louder, bubbling over, then whispers, “I won’t even be anything anymore.”
When I stand up out of my chair, I’m thinking about the trampoline. When I walk to her, and put my hands on her shoulders, I believe a little that I am sorry for her, that I can help her or at least that I want very badly to. I put my hand on her scalp.
“Mom, how about we just get rid of it all at once? OK? We’ll just do it right now.”
It feels like years pass before anyone responds in any way besides staring up at me with blank, dumbfounded looks, but finally my father makes a move.
“Abby, she has a point,” he says. He crouches next to her and touches her face, coaxing her. “Come on, sweetie, this will be good for you. Good for everyone.”
“You’re just going to shave it?” my mother asks me.
“Well, do you just want to let it fall out?”
Mallory is excited. “Take control, Abby! You’re an empowered woman!”
Mom doesn’t say anything else, but I can see in the way she's sitting that this is as close to an affirmative answer I’m going to get.
When I return from the bathroom with a towel, scissors, and my dad’s clippers, everyone has assembled around my mother who’s sitting in the middle of the room, perched on the chair. Mallory is rubbing her belly, and Thomas has his hand on the back of her neck. I move past my father, and then swing the towel around the front of her like a bib. Mallory hands me the clip holding her hair up, and I use it to fasten the back of the towel. Standing behind my mother, I pull her hair out from under the towel and begin to braid it. Even though I can’t see her face, I know her eyes are closed. I also know that she has stopped crying. When I lower my chin down to the top of her head, the image of her wild trampoline jumping is flickering in my mind like a rickety home movie. I want her to be that, to have that freedom. I want us all to have that freedom. Into the crown of her head I ask, “Ready now?” and her head bobs up and down for “yes.” I press my lips to her hair in a gesture of affection I haven’t made since I was a teenager, but she feels just like I remember her - smells like the same baby powder and sandalwood. The top of her head moves toward me, and I imagine that with her chin tilted forward toward the windows there is something serene about her face - that maybe there’s a brightness and bravery there. So I snip the braid leaving about two inches of an untamed thicket of curls. She inhales sharply as it falls to the ground. The clippers hum when I rake them across her head, and the curls unlock themselves from her scalp falling to the ground until the pile on the floor is a fire. Until her head is a soft furry bulb like a peach. Until I am soft, until we all are soft and I know that I do love my mother. I love my mother and she is very sick.