What Hair Does
“I’d trust Jane with a pair of scissors . . .” I was cross-legged on the vanity bench aiming to slingshot my mother with a garter belt.
She looked up from the sewing machine and peered over the top of her bifocals. She had on a stretched-out, once-white bra, and a dainty roll of pale freckled skin lopped over the waistband of her half-slip. “You’d let anyone with a rusty kitchen knife and a DustBuster at your hair! Thank god those bangs have grown out.” She went back to the dress, tucking up the hem with straight pins, their rainbow-colored nibs poking out from the white like button candy. The length was fine, but she’d just insisted on trying it herself and declared the hemline “dangerously long.”
“On you, maybe,” I’d said.
“We’re the same height, Darlene,” she scolded, stripping the dress expertly from her body. She stepped out of it, then swept it up, fairy-godmotherly, from the floor and draped it over a desk chair while she went to lug the old Singer from the hall closet.
“Thank god my bangs grew? Jesus Christ. That’s what hair does, Ma. It grows.”
“Well if you really wanted to look like a seven-year-old in your wedding photos . . .”
“It was a style.” There was little use. We’d been through this before.
“The style of seven-year-olds off to summer camp!”
“It was an intentional affectation.”
That glare over the rimless glasses again. She was the one shelling out for the photographer.
“I hate real haircuts,” I said.
“I’m well aware of that.”
“Jane can just snip the ends,” I offered. “Just neaten it up a little.”
I craned toward the mirror, which was trimmed in horse show ribbons: Dressage. Walk, Trot, Canter. A purple crystal peeked out of a crocheted pouch thumbtacked to the frame. A Polaroid of me and Jane from high school. I’d needed a haircut then, too.
“I leave it to you and Jane, and I’ll have to look at bald wedding photos of my daughter for the rest of my life!”
I agreed: “Bald, and with a high-water wedding gown!”
She set down the pincushion. “You want to snag your heel and go face down at the altar?”
“It fits me just fine.”
She let out an exasperated sigh, laid down the dress, stood wearily, and grabbed for my hand—then spun me around like we were dance partners.
“Right now. Back to back,” she ordered. She crushed her body into my body so we were ass to ass, me and my mother, she in her underwear. She reached up a hand and let it hammock between the tops of our heads.
“Darlene,” she sighed, “we are exactly the same height.”
In Bed with My Parents
“You’ve really got some kind of balls,” my father says to my mother, his voice the detached Alzheimer’s monotone, drug-altered, strange. He stares at the ceiling.
My mother heaves a sigh. She turns over in bed to face him. She uses more effort than is necessary.
“What, Harry?” She sighs again. “What makes you say that?” She stares at him. She’s tired; you can see it in her eyes, sunken sadly and haloed in violet.
My father continues to stare at the ceiling. He’s not worked up; the disease seems to have taken that capability away from him. He is simply stating things as he sees them. “You have some balls bringing that man into bed with you while I’m lying right here.”
My mother’s face falls further. She is trying not to cry. She is trying not to yell. “What man is that, Harry? What man?” She peers at him searchingly. The streetlamp outside their bedroom window is the only light. She waits for his answer. She wants so much for him to have the right one.
“That man lying there next to you,” says my father.
“There’s no man here, Harry,” my mother tells him. She lifts the sheets around her, pats at the mattress, moves back and forth as if he might crane around her to inspect. He doesn’t. “We’re the only people here, Harry; you and me.” Her voice has an edge of exasperation. Maybe it’s desperation. They seem much the same to her these days.
He does not react, but seems to take her word for it. Something has been established. He is moving on, next order of business. “And can you tell me when we acquired a cat?” he asks.
She closes her eyes, like she’s fighting a migraine. “Where is there a cat, Harry?” she says to him through shuttered lids. “We don’t have a cat. You know we’ve never had a cat.”
He points toward the comforter between them. “What do you call that?” he says, not smug, not plaintive, somewhere in between. He’d like a name for it, please, thank you.
“That’s the blanket. That’s not anything. It’s the comforter. God. Honestly? You see something? Right there? You see a cat?”
My father nods stiffly, the back of his head scraping static against the pillowcase.
“Oh, Harry,” my mother says. “Harry, there’s nothing here. Touch it. It’s the blanket. Touch it yourself. There’s nothing here but us. I’m the only one in bed with you.”
He is stoic, taking in this information. My mother watches him for a sign, some sign. Some sign of what? She doesn’t know. My father, distrust now clouding his face, slowly lifts one trembling arm, fingers vibrating as though his body’s gone spastic with fear. He reaches out, and it’s like a horror movie, the air in the night room humming as though pierced by the everlasting draw of a note on a violin. He reaches out as though his honor depends upon this act of bravery in the face of the unknown. My mother edges herself as far from my father as she can without falling off the bed, avoiding the quivering hand rising like something undead from the coffin. He stretches tentatively, ready to pull back at the first nip from the cat’s waiting jaws. His hand sinks slowly to the bed. My mother expects relief when his palm touches the sheet—floral, to hide the stains, drool, urine—but there is none. He’s like a superhero, my father: he’s missed the evildoer this time but he’s sadly, sagely, gravely all too aware that there will always be a next time. That cat will get him yet.
My mother vows the next night she will move into the guest room. She won’t put herself through this again. But she sleeps the remainder of this night at the very edge of the mattress, the shared sheet sunken between herself and her husband, her legs curled awkwardly so as not to disturb whatever’s not there.
My mother flapped her arms as we waded into the ocean, warding off the waves. Our city-white skin glowed like bone against the Mexican blue. “There’s an undertow,” she warned me.
“Mom,” I said, turning toward her, toward the shore, the late-day sun at my back, “there is a drag. How else would you like for the tide to go in and out?” This is the way we converse now, grown woman to grown woman.
“There is a little drag,” she conceded, testing her weight on either foot and cocking her head as though trying to shake water from her ears. The water only reached her shins. It was startlingly clear except when the drag churned up the bottom and swirled the white-tan sand into billowing roils, obscuring—for just a moment—our bird’s-eye view of the Second Avenue pedicures I’d forced her to come get with me the day before. Hers: Seashelly. Mine: Screaming Ostrich. I glanced down and saw not only my blue toenails, but some text, too, also bluish. There were figures, words. A wave, and it was gone again.
My mom held her arms out like she was awaiting crucifixion, but not in a completely bad way, more like maybe she was happy, ready to go anytime. She closed her eyes and cried to the setting sun, “What gloriousity!” She’s a good actress, but also, I knew, she was trying.
Another wave. I panned the bottom. I felt like one of those people who travel with a metal detector, because, after all, spare change adds up, you know. A numerical flash! I stamped a foot on top of what I saw, then felt the sand seep out from beneath my arch. Lost. When the wave receded I looked down, just to make sure. Nothing. I glanced around, wanting to call off the waves for just a minute—wait, whoa, whoa, whoa, I see something—but tides can’t be stopped. Not for anyone. No matter how badly she might need reprieve.
A wave rolled in, rolled out, and then, there it was! In a momentary lull—a crystalline, shimmering lull—I grabbed at the thing with my pretty new toes, lifted my foot above the surface, still only up to my waist, and plucked up the wet paper. “Ha!” I triumphed. “Look at that!” I stuck the bill toward my mom who, I was surprised to see, had waded farther out. She’d even held her nose and tipped her hair back in the water, so she looked like a pomaded gentleman. She looked, in fact, like my father in old photos of them from the fifties, when they were young, when he was well. “Twenty pesos!” I cried.
My mother clapped her hands with mustered glee, took the bill and held it to the sunlight as though inspecting for imperfections or signs of forgery. Then she started back toward the shore, folding the peso note up in quarters, eighths. I watched her stick it beneath the leg elastic of the stretched-out old Danskin leotard she called a swimsuit. “Good kid,” she told me. “Good kid.”
I thought to say something hopeful, but couldn’t think what.
“Well,” my mom said, “Don’t get lazy now. Keep your head down and your eyes peeled for more!” Then she said: “Once he dies, that’s it for his Social Security.” She walked out of the water, her suit sagging down her body the way her boobs do, and collapsed on a towel as though that last line had torn all the sun-warmth and ocean-clean from her in one swipe.
I swam until the sun had almost disappeared into the sea, then lay with my mom on the beach. There were travel-size bottles of SPF 15, 30, and 45 sitting in her straw bag not three feet from our towels, but I didn’t put any on. I still felt lucky, lying there, the twenty peso note tucked beneath the threadbare Lycra at my mother’s hip.
Iris Murdoch’s Taste for Kale
I was counting on Iris Murdoch, pre-Alzheimer’s, as a model, since she did love John Bayley in the movie, or seemed to anyway.
“She may have loved her husband,” says my mother, “but Iris Murdoch had many lovers—men and women.”
My mother once loved a man in Jamaica who was married. Or black. Or both. I’ve never gotten the whole story. All quite familially disapproved of back then. This was long before my father. Since my father, she has loved no one but my father, though since the Alzheimer’s got him she has—god, what word to use? It matters, not just to my mother but to me. Fucked? Bedded? Slept with? Flung? Know this: my mother is a health nut. My mother eats her kale, and likes it. Sex isn’t dessert. Dessert is beside the point; sex is protein.
If you sit close and listen to my father mumble, you’ll see he’s trapped in a nightmare, circa 1983, when he was a banker and a landlord: bonds to be traded, Singapore’s on the phone, a pipe’s burst, here’s your tenant, 5B, line 2: the elevator’s gone out, again. Now, my dad does this thing: he won’t lie back in bed, keeps his head six inches off the mattress—strongest abs you ever saw on an invalid, swear to god—half lying there, lips moving like prayer, problems to solve before he sleeps, equations to unravel before he dreams.
Some nights I drive to this other man’s house, then can’t go in. I sit, longing, on his porch, like there’s a puzzle whose solution might allow me up the stairs, like I’m my dad: half up, half down, straining nowhere, pained. I wish my lover could answer me this: did Iris Murdoch worry infidelity’s sore tooth? Was cheating, to Iris, like candy? Or like kale? Or like meat? The thing is this: I like kale better than candy. The thing is: I’m a vegetarian.
The Last Marathon Brunch
The New York Marathon goes past my folks’ building, and for decades they hosted a great marathon brunch—an excuse for Mom to cook up big pots of autumn squash soup and Chicken Marbella and roasted beet salad, and drink champagne in the middle of the day. And in early November of the year my father lay dying—Alzheimer’s—in a rented hospital bed set up in their room, my mom saw no reason to cancel the annual party. “I’m not just going to sit around and wait for him to die!”
And so the marathon brunch went on as planned. I drove into the city to help with preparations. We spent Saturday cooking and cleaning, sitting with Dad, holding his cold hand, stroking the three strands of hair that fell across his forehead, listening to the horrible breaths heave in and out of his wracked body. No one knew how long he’d hang on; aside from the fact that he’d been degenerating for a decade and a half, he still had, according to the doctors, the heart and lungs of the marathon runner he’d never been. He hadn’t eaten in a week.
The intercom from the lobby buzzed at seven o’clock Sunday morning. A delivery? I was still trying to sleep, though my mother’d already been in the kitchen for an hour in frenetic party preparation. I could smell almonds toasting in the oven. There was a knock on my door, and without pause my mother leaned in: “Baby, Daddy died in the night and they’re here to take the body, so if you want to say good-bye you’ve got to do it now.” She’d woken up at two to pee and saw he wasn’t breathing, had gone back to sleep until five, and called the mortuary at six. She said, “It wasn’t like he was going anywhere.”
My mother refused to tell anyone he was dead. “I’m not going to greet people at the door and say Hi, good morning, Harry’s dead—have some champagne!”
“Mom,” I tried, “there are other ways to—”
She wouldn’t hear of it. “They’ll assume he’s in the bedroom where he’s always been.”
So the guests arrived and gathered on the sidewalk and took photos as Lance Armstrong ran by, and then we trekked back upstairs and Mom herded everyone together while I poured champagne. My mother was an actress in her youth. Every year she watches the Academy Awards, always a little bit disappointed she’s been overlooked for an Oscar yet again. She raised her glass: “As you all know, Harry loved the marathon, and I think he’d be as glad as I am to have all our friends and loved ones here today. He always did have impeccable timing, and this is no exception. Harry died last night—”
A collective gasp. People turned in the direction of the bedroom, as though my father had been, at that very moment, sucked from the fifteenth-story window by alien abductors. Then my mother tried to hustle everyone to the buffet table for her famous rice salad with scallions, oranges, and toasted almonds, and I wanted, right then, to give her an Oscar: Best Impersonation Of A Woman Who Won’t, In Due Time, Be Undone By Irreconcilable Grief.