If you're curious about my mother, know that when I drew her picture, yellow lasers shot out of her from all directions. That is what she looked like every morning standing in front of the just-drawn curtains. But most of the time, she dressed in dull colors, moved around the house in loose-fitting slacks and T-shirts, or else she wore thick cotton blouses and apronish skirts with stockings when she had places to go. Her hair was always short and dyed. She never let the real smell of her body out. She liked colognes.
My room was at the top of the stairs. This was in the house from before I started keeping track of anything happening to anyone anywhere except inside the house. Somewhere, upstairs, I had a sister.
In the mornings, my mother set a plate in front of me and combed down my hair with spit while I ate. But besides the spitting, my mother didn't talk much. What I got from her were even-penned, misspelled love notes in my lunches, which were many-coursed and came in beige plastic bags from the supermarket. She wasn't from this country, I knew that. The words she taught me were mostly wrong. She said my blood was rich with the fat of kings and that one day I would stand for something perfect, high above the clouds. She had spent some time on the wording of it, I could tell.
As for the house, it was a narrow brick affair set up on a high mound of yellow grass. The kitchen floors were wood and swollen and usually dusted up with flour. My mother loved to broom. I think it drew on some latent talent she had had once, like dancing, or training horses.
As for my sister, she was set on music, but she smoked. The most I saw of her were thin, flipping hands when she threw trash or cigarette butts out her window. If I was out there in the yard, she took aim: cherry pits or fat, hairy wads of bubble gum; squashed-down cans of soda. She lived in the attic, and when she wasn't home, I unlocked her black wooden box and read through torn-out pages of magazines that told stories of the darkest choice encounters of the flesh.
Besides that, her bedroom was just bare-bulb-lit, scrawled-on and broken walls, with nail clippings sprinkled here and there, sweaty clothes tossed into the corners. But her bathroom was special, wallpapered in old-fashioned red flowers and butterflies, and on the toilet seat she had painted a brown, winking owl. Sometimes there were words written on the white bowl itself, like love or good, words I recalled throughout the dinners my sister refused to sit in front of. My mother disappeared up to her in the evenings with bowls of soup and came down bashfully to my room afterward, made up in scarves and lipstick, to nod good night.
The school was squat and brick and twice daily visited by short-pantsed mothers and their gleaming pastel station wagons. My mother parked in the shade of a tree and kept the engine running while she waited, watching for me in the side-view mirror. Her car was a rubber-scented, rusted-up screaming black thing, the seats lined with brightly colored blankets and smeared, silvery newspaper. When she yelled out my name, it was like a dying man clearing his throat one final time. I hurried to her, humiliated.
I would always obey my mother, for to obey anyone else would have been a betrayal. So I was bad at school. At least once a week, there was a note in my book bag that attempted to describe for my mother just how much the school disrespected her mothering. I knew she had little skill in decoding the American crudity of adult cursive, so I read the notes out loud, declaring great successes by way of spelling contests and geography bees. According to school records, I was not coordinated. I talked at a wrong volume. I made messes. I tore my homework to shreds. On my report cards, the set of boxes named "unsatisfactory" got all the checks. My mother had no idea.
On the walls of the echoless school corridor, there were stars full of names. My last one was often misspelled, letters backward, stray marks floating in magenta marker as though to signify some wrongdoing of my forefathers. But I didn't care. I didn't know anything about my forefathers.
In fifth grade, my spine, it was discovered, was crooked. A doctor photographed my bones and then strapped me into the thing he said would straighten me out for good. The gown the nurses had me wear allowed me to flash my buttocks at the worried mas and pas; the X-ray lady always tied a lead apron around my gendered area; each time the doctor took my mother aside, it was to pass some judgment on the progression of my adolescence, talking about my skeletal maturity, saying that somehow the responsibility of growing up correctly had to do with bracing oneself, that there was indeed virtue in sitting up straight. She nodded and dotted her nose with a tissue, understanding nothing.
On weekends, maybe to console me, my mother took me to the city — an antiquated brick and glass deal that would have been dull and unfriendly-feeling had it not been for the docks, and the boys and girls in their red and yellow T-shirts jumping into the harbor and pulling themselves up on the frayed, rotting ropes that coiled shyly on the water.
I was and never would be one of those boys and girls — fearless, sunburnt creatures who, at night, roamed the streets, warming themselves, it seemed, under the soft yellow lamplight on the city corners, hugging the stray dogs, pocketing what they wanted from candy shops and sharing their pennies with the bums. The city was the kind with lots of swinging chipped wooden signs advertising warm-weather food and beer. Sometimes there was music, roller-skating. Sometimes long-haired men, their arms slung around girls in striped jerseys and jeans, strode up close enough that we could smell the sweat that shone on their shoulders and the golden hairs raised on their necks.
I am mentioning all of this because I want to make it clear how terrible it was that when I walked down the streets of this city, my mother's hands gripping my shirtsleeve and her purse respectively, there was quite literally a shield of hard, white plastic around my body that, with every breath I took, pressed against me the fact that no matter what I imagined my life to be, it was always going to be in there, trapped, and not out on the street, or out in the water, or in anybody's arms.
By high school, I had developed a method of living that allowed me to equate the comings and goings of the house with the ins and outs of my own body. Suffice it to say that I left the house rarely, and when I did, it was only to reexamine what awful nonsense I was so smartly avoiding by never leaving the house. I became accustomed to my slantiness, but preyed on the hours spent in the tub, braceless, where I slung my hands around the so-assumed depth of my soul and imagined all the power and loathing I was sure I fostered escaping with every goopy expulsion I could muster.
When I was not occupied in the tub, I was locking myself up in books, adhering to the non-gloriously subtracted life summaries of black men. It was the softhearted dignity I loved in those books. And I could relate to their pain, I thought. It was hell in school. I sat with the theater people at lunch and ignored them in the halls and on the bus. I did not fall in love at all. My mother became more of a landlady, parceling out the food, sweeping out my room, grunting absentmindedly when she passed me on the stairs.
I will be lazy here. My later adolescence is unimportant.
The years I spent enduring higher education were demarcated by haircuts and seasonal colds. My best memories are of walking down the concrete paths between the library and the gymnasium. It was at these times I came up with the truths that I felt necessarily allowed me to keep doing what I was doing, oftentimes inspired by whatever taste I was burping up or something to do with the physical sciences. For example: Torture in moderation keeps a disciplined mind in need of good, unfulfillable desires. Or: The innards of a man are most entirely made of fat, and that is why he likes a woman, whose preoccupation with her fat exterior keeps fat in the open and the man's fat secret safe.
I remember my college classmates by the questions they asked me before class: Give me a buck? How about it? Guy or girl?
After college, I took a room in a boardinghouse, mopping floors and pulling weeds in exchange for rent. I still went home to my mother to take my meals.
But I was not without ambition! Daily, I sent out typewritten letters to companies whose advertisements in the newspaper called for people with expertise in areas I wasn't at all familiar with. I applied to be a florist, a loan officer, wet nurse, lifeguard, beekeeper, bartender, machinist, social worker. I had grown tired of what used to ail me: a not-worth-mentioning habit of finding use for weights and measures, adding and taking away the forces of nature in my mind until, when I put myself to sleep, the only thing keeping me from plummeting up into the cosmos was a terrible fear that I would simply explode up there. I must sound crazy. I prayed for distractions. I started keeping track of current events: the weather, local crime, the economy, international affairs, cults, celebrity gossip, oil, laws. At lunches and dinners, my mother slid over a manila envelope full of ones. Take it or leave, she would say. So I took. This went on for years.
Is it too late to tell you that the desires I had for most things were entirely made up? Or that in the boardinghouse kitchen, between meals at home with my mother, I defrosted a brick of spinach or sliced potatoes only to eat half of it and refreeze the rest? Because if this is going to be a confession of anything, shouldn't it be of the sort to answer the question of what I was getting at after so many years of mashing the food on my plate with my fork until I could just lick it off and wash it down with a glass of milk I had named Alice or Sue or Carly? I mean, shouldn't I make myself out to be something special? Because it is not enough of me to say that I had fallen into habits like just anybody in the world, or that there is something about the lonerness of a man that tempts him into certain ways. I will be lazy here, too. The things I used to feel for broke off and became simply things I would look at when I had to look at something.
And then one day I found my mother dying on the kitchen floor from what she kept terming the brokedness of a no-thank-you-ed, dried-up heart. I sat down and ate the soup she had been cooking and listened to her tell an all-too-self-martyring story of her life. This is what she sounded like: "Blah blah blah blah blah." You have to imagine this all coming out of a mouth dripping with stale, still-war-torn saliva. I walked out and left the neighbors to contend with her body. That was how I showed my love for her: I pretended she had just disappeared. Maybe she hadn't been real at all. I never once visited her grave.
Like most people, I tend to downplay the days up until a certain point. Case in point: by the time it was already too late to start anything afresh, I took a job shadowing an old woman who otherwise lived alone in a two-bedroom apartment in a part of the city sectioned off for greasy bakeries, black-market pharmacies, and cold, too-brightly-lit bars serviced by altogether lackluster however large-titted girls in their 40s.
The old woman was the fearful, stubborn type, with a wheezy, cotton-mouthed rag of a dog and a middle-class son who lived across the river. She talked about death as an absentminded city clerk, some kind of shortchanging, briefcased schmuck not too honest for her to outsmart. I was part of a plan, hired to watch her sleep and stop traffic on her walks to and from the post office, where she visited the contents of a safe-deposit box, whispering god knows how sweet nothings into fists clutching a gold watch and matching ruby tennis bracelets. We didn't care much for each other. Each night after supper, we watched the same evening news on separate televisions. As a replacement for my mother, she outdid herself.
And then she croaked. Like most people have croaked. Like I will. And you. And everyone you've ever seen or heard of.
So if I have any complaint to make, it is that I am far too typical. When I cut off the tops of bottles, it is to pour in something else without spilling. Am I right in assuming you can relate? Am I wrong in guessing that this is all too familiar? I can say quite absolutely that there is nothing left for me, that nobody gives a damn, and it is not out of self-pity that I say this but out of a stern unknown-ness that I've held on to because I never in my life gave a damn about anybody else.
Except for my sister, I should say. I think I loved her.