Cherry Garcia, Pistachio Cream
A mother, a daughter, a beach. Sky, water. Gulls, mynas, also tiny
canaries, bougainvillaea. Mild surf. The soothing, repetitive sound
of its wash.
Two women walk by, wearing swim suits the mother thinks resemble flowered underwear.
"Those suits," the daughter says. "They look like they came from KMart."
"Well, we don't."
"Absolutely not. We have class." The daughter laughs. Her declaration of solidarity follows on their decision to buy the same black bathing suits. For the daughter shopping for a bathing suit had brought on a crisis of character. She did not want anything as flagrant as a bikini. She tried on two piece suits the mother frankly thought were ugly: daisy prints, and those tropical floral numbers favored by grandmothers. The daughter didn't like them any more than the mother. I don't want to look like I'm still fifteen and confused, she'd said. Then she'd tried on the same black suit her mother had decided on.
"You look smashing," the mother had said.
In the daughter's mind her choice suddenly became clear. She and her mother were a pair, handsome women. Of course this was the suit she wanted. Its understated elegance described whom she finally had become: a woman as worldly, poised and competent as her mother.
Bathers, coming in, other bathers going out. A short Japanese father walks past, followed by his tall son. The daughter is fascinated by this tandem rite. Her own father, while not entirely out of the picture, has diminished in size, changed position. He who once commanded a large part of the foreground now seems to stand somewhere behind her and her mother. Or not stand but lie, as he likes to do, in a recliner, pipe beside the glass of bourbon and water, while he follows the progress of a documentary on the courtship practices of bower birds.
He'd declared he had to forego this vacation in order to complete the design for the new Performing Arts Center, part of the general refurbishing of the state capitol. The mother and daughter were secretly pleased. They wouldn't for the world hurt his feelings, but right now they want to feel completely free to indulge mother-daughterness. They want to giggle together in a conspiratorial way, to be impetuous, even rash with their mutual affections. Though they know he would never object to this, that he would in fact take pleasure in their pleasure, still their solicitous regard for his feelings would cramp their style.
The Japanese father has the gait of a Sumo wrestler, out in front of his son, insistent on primacy. Or perhaps this son truly honors this father who is beginning to need to lower his cholesterol. Though the daughter has the impression their tandemness is less the son’s choice than the result of centuries of custom, custom in which sons as well as daughters were obliged to assume the position of females. Such protocols are crumbling, she believes, and not a moment too soon. Though the Equal Rights Amendment failed, though women still make sixty-nine cents on the dollar--for a while it was seventy-nine cents, but it's gone back down--we are living in a new world. And it belongs, here and now, to egalitarian mothers and affectionate daughters. Imagine walking behind your mother--preposterous!
"Are you coming in with me?" the daughter asks.
The daughter takes her mother's hand, as though she wants to declare their love in public. The daughter's long hair is straight, an auburn waterfall. The mother thinks maybe she'll let her hair grow too. She's had short hair for a decade, but now she's tired of this. She smiles to think she's taking her daughter as a model. Also the mother does not tire of noticing how the daughter tosses her long hair to one side, how she's a neatnik, her apartment uncluttered as a gallery. And they share the same slenderness, the same voracious metabolism. They eat a lot and often, then burn it right up, while their women friends on diets steam with envy.
Hand in hand they walk toward surf. Both are conscious of how similar their bodies are, especially in these swim suits: a double set of Renoir brush strokes, moving toward water.
As a child the daughter hadn’t liked baths much, had refused swimming lessons. Now, suddenly, water is her element. She wades in first. How fine, she thinks, to have this daughter out in front of her. They walk in waist deep, stand there. The water is pale turquoise. Suddenly the daughter ducks down.
"Chilly!" she says, and laughs. She kicks, putting a little distance between them. "Come on!" she cries.
The mother follows her. They paddle idly, not going anywhere, but being in motion together.
Things are peachy keen, and I know what you're thinking. It's not a story unless something goes dramatically wrong. You want dissention: conflict, the frisson in each scene upping the ante, leading to catharsis. Catharsis is what Aristotle prescribed, and to get you there the characters have to suffer. Suffering is uppercase. No comic interlude should interfere with the smooth, ongoing flow of treachery. O.K., all right, once in a while you'll accept a happy ending, but only after harrowing distress.
But think about the possibilities. They have a major fracas, these two? Not likely. They're into affectionate cooperation, gooey love. The daughter likes holding her mother's hand while they walk, and the mother eats this kind of thing up. The mother could dislike the daughter's boyfriend, but that's so predictable, and besides, he's a sweetie. He and the mother go for each other. She's beginning to indulge the notion that he's the son she didn't have.
One might find out belatedly about a much earlier betrayal by the other. But betrayal is also predictable, and frankly I don't like it. Where Hippocrates says friendship is treacherous, I like to quote him as saying experience is treacherous and friendship fleeting.
Anyway, these two had their torment much earlier.
After the mother worship of childhood, the daughter, at twelve, at fourteen, at sixteen, had felt the mother's presence nearly unendurable.This mom ran marathons. She climbed Mt. McKinley. She chaired the Department of Theater and Dance at the University and had played all the female leads in Tennessee Williams. She'd got rave reviews for her Lady Macbeth, her Kate in Taming of the Shrew. She sat on the State Arts Council board and helped organized the annual AIDS Walkathon. There were many finish lines, and life whizzed by at high speed, a strong breeze snapping the mother's flags.
Or so the daughter told herself when she felt uncertain of her own capabilities. Actually the daughter was well aware that though the mother's competence seemed formidable, she needed wrapping and cuddling, little strokes and kisses, compliments and presents. Though the mother could hold her own in a marathon, she was easily wounded. Though she spoke to large crowds without anxiety, she could be stung by a cruel remark. The daughter wanted to hurt her, just a little. It felt good, sometimes, to turn coldly away.
She remembered the father telling her how once when he and the mother were quarreling, he'd suggested that she dramatized things, perhaps overly. His wife looked at him and laughed.
"What you get is what you get."
To the father this remark seemed titillating. He'd laughed. But when the daughter listened to the story, she heard the mother's remark as a stiletto of ice. Soon after hearing this story, the daughter hurled a soapy dishrag at the mother and stomped out of the kitchen. How dare this mother feel so sure of herself!
Why couldn't she have a mother less spectacular? Someone who sometimes hesitated would have been nice. Someone indecisive, a little less directed, and softer, dreamier, less tightly knit.
"You always know what you want, and you get it," the daughter said. By this time her hair was matted on one side from lying on the bed, sobbing. "Why can’t you just once in a while not know?"
Gone the mother's elan. She became an ache. Hot baths didn't help. The word until presented itself in the air and stayed there, ringing like a phone no one was answering. She remembers that time--several years--as a hair shirt she could not take off. Every moment--and the present was eternal--she was cast out. She could not find a way back into the daughter's affections. The daffodils came forward, tulips spread their arms wide, but it was as though she stood outside her own house, locked out. No fluffy bed, no boiling tea kettle for her! No cozy hugs while she and the daughter lounged on the couch, watching a Nora Ephron movie. No shampoo and conditioner camaraderie, no girly solidarity against pipe smoke and football. And no little presents in the fringed gift box the daughter had made at the Third Grade Art Fair, where, beneath the clam shell lid, she left magic marker love notes, and on Mother's Day, a chocolate truffle.
The father watched from the sidelines. After the soapy dishrag episode, he'd slung an arm around his wife's shoulders. She'd wept. He'd embraced her, patted her back. She went on weeping. He'd had the good grace not to say this too shall pass.
Then the daughter called off her onslaught. She became civil, though not warmly. Suddenly she seemed very busy. She left home, got educated and took a job as therapist, counselor and general trouble shooter at the Safehouse. The women who fled there were terrified, confused, indecisive women. Their vacillation was excruciating. They smoked one cigarette after another while they tried to make up their minds whether or not to leave the men who were hitting them and their children. In the course of ministering to these women, the daughter came to know herself more exactly. She was not, she noted, anywhere nearly so anxious, so tentative, so helpless as these women. In their presence she possessed a surety, a confident common sense and its attendant generosity, and a very large capacity to imagine their terror, their uncertainty, their longing. These qualities had been in her all along, but she had not fully experienced their dimensions until called upon to do so. In this context the nuance of her acts, which had seemed clouded by the shimmering figure of the mother, appeared in all their rich, palpable detail.
One day the mother had dropped in unannounced at the Safehouse. As she entered the hallway, she saw a band of co-workers swoop into the daughter's office, bearing armfuls of blossoms. It wasn't the daughter's birthday. So this daughter contained surprises! And there was the time she’d overheard the daughter speaking to her father like a counselor. You might try, the mother heard her say. What were they discussing? It was the daughter's air of wise competence that had caught the mother's attention. And when she went to the daughter's apartment--for now the daughter threw open that locked door and invited her over--there were new recipes simmering, the aroma of unfamiliar spices.
All these things could happen without her, the mother! Amazing, she thought. My daughter has a life.
Now the daughter feels affectionate. What once resembled photo realism in her mind has taken on the character of a Mary Cassatt. When she was a child she would carry a leaf or a pebble into the house to offer her mother. Now she has again begun to bring her mother little gifts--a coupon, a new kind of candy bar. Earrings.
Choosing the same swimsuit is another version of these presents.
So you see: all that's over. Passe, kaput. Here they are at the shore, in love with each other. When you're in love you refuse to let anything spoil it. And this is not your average chocolate chip cookie love. This is Baked Alaska love, replete with nostalgia about little things which mother and daughter have now decided to render significant by dwelling on them.
Still, you say, we cannot let these two simply persist! Persistence is not a story unless it translates into triumph over overwhelming odds. Conflict used to mean rising action in the realistic mode, bristling with interesting abrasions. Now it requires AK47s and ammo. You’re used to bloody crashes, exploding mines, death by drive by shooting, the bombing of executive towers.
All right: for you, I'm prepared briefly to invoke the conventions to which we’ve become accustomed. A young man changing a tire on the interstate gets offed by a passing motorist. Russian wives pay cash up front to have alcoholic husbands blown away. Shell trashes the Ogoni, the Mexicans trash the box turtles. Refugees trash each other for a cup of water. And fifteen year old Martha Moxley is beaten to death with a golf club on the grounds of her family's exclusive Greenwich, Connecticut estate.
The mother and daughter sip mineral water beneath palms. They watch two vans pour out their stream of primary school children. The kids run, shouting, toward the pier. They run to the end, scream, and jump off clutching their knees with their arms, hitting the water in foetal position. They fill the surf, bob, run up onto the sand.
These kids are mad exuberance. Unbounded energy. The mother and daughter are charmed by their running and shouting. When the daughter wearies of watching them, she likes to look at her mother's body. She can't tell if her mother is beautiful, or if she thinks so because this is her mother. She studies the little nicks--a pimple, a lizard skin elbow, a tiny bruise on one thigh. These little imperfections only make the mother more interesting.
"You've still got those great legs," the daughter says.
"I'm not too happy about my face though. It looks kind of saggy."
So what if it's not the face of a twenty-five-year-old. That would be weird."
"Still," the mother says. She laughs. You can discuss your neurotic anxieties with a daughter, then giggle together. It's fun to have foibles to titter about. Two little girls in pony tails run to the end of the pier, take each other’s hands and jump off.
Your grandmother really was good looking, the mother says. And she gave us both these good bones."
The mothers call the children. One boy insists on running one last time onto the pier and jumping off. He scrambles out, runs to catch up. Children, the mother thinks, are ever seeing some brightness and rushing toward it--until they remember: mother--where is she? Then they tear back, flinging themselves at her with everything in them.
The daughter watches two mynas instruct their offspring in scavenging. Beyond them the sea offers its infinite slipperiness. Every evening the same sunset: clouds, pale gray, and behind this scrim, a hot pink ball. Night, when it comes, will be a nest. Birds roosting, palm fronds rustling. Soon they’ll discuss what they want for dinner, whether the restaurant will offer Key Lime Pie.
"Tell me everything you remember about me when I was little," the daughter says.
"When you started to talk you chattered away nonstop. You kept up a running commentary on everything you were doing. Now I'm putting Jane's shoes on--remember Jane, your first doll? Now I'm putting Jane to bed. Now I'm sitting down on the potty." The mother remembers how sweet the daughter's body had seemed, how she held her and kissed her and felt soft baby skin against her own. "And you used sophisticated words you'd heard people say. One day you watched a car drive by, and you said what a delicate car."
"I didn't want you to have any children but me," the daughter says.
"Once you and I were driving somewhere, and you asked me if your father and I were going to have another baby. Maybe we'd been talking to you about it. You were eight or nine, I think. And you declared yourself. You said I want to be your only child."
"And you heard me," the daughter says.
"Of course," the mother says. "You were wonderful. How could we have wanted more?" They giggle. Such extravagant assertions! But really, what delight, this trading of compliments, this basking in mutual trust. It feels springy, like the mesh of a hammock so wide you can't fall out of it.
You still don't like it. All this joie de vivre is not how people actually have to live their lives. There is no free lunch, you say. This mother and daughter enjoy their glass of sparkling intimacy while another mother and daughter are made to watch each other being tortured. But of course: it happens. Our psyches have been battered: thus we require battering, and the familiar is comforting. Comfort us, you say, with the usual double on the rocks and an olive of titillation on a toothpick.
But truth is not always so predictable, shapely, or convenient. What's true at one juncture of the space/time continuum is not necessarily true at another. And what is true, right here, right now, is that bliss reigns, interrupted by occasional trips to the toilet (an act not without its own pleasant slant on sensuality!), or into the cafe to get a bite and a latte. Notwithstanding the fact that in a London subway a bomb is exploding, that in the Balkans a dead man lies face down in a burst sack of flour, what's going on here is bliss. Bliss prettily punctuated by modestly lavish sunsets, and little children who shred our cynicism. Not one single kid is sobbing. There isn't even one skinned knee!
You protest. Don't distract us with a shiny bauble! We have to live in the real world, and it's hell out here. Listen, I hear you. Still, every moment reality is up for grabs. You've constructed your reality, and your take is indeed savvy--no one will put one over on you--but it’s a construction. So is mine, of course. But right now I prefer mine, replete with sudden bursts of irrational well being, affection that resembles an underground spring bursting up through the crusty earth. I’d like to talk you around, however briefly, to checking it out. Come on over: it's free and mellow yellow, here where there's no matricide, no child abuse. Here where the sand has been raked into evenness and the water is shamelessly gorgeous.
The sea, the mother thinks this morning, is a monster. They’ve scarcely finished breakfast, and already she's lost an earring. At first she felt that a precious object--almost a part of her--had been stolen: her daughter gave her these earrings! But then it seemed fitting: of course you must give something up to this animal roiling! Great grandmother beast--bone washer, rock breaker, lady of the floating hair gobbling dead sailors. Primalness must have her sacrifice, the mother tells herself. Think of it as feeding the ancestor.
They settle into chairs. Before them, two lovers on the pier, woman in bikini, man in wet suit. He has unzipped the wetsuit halfway and thrown off the top so that it hangs down his hips. The top of the woman's head comes to the middle of his breastbone. She is darker than he is, maybe Mexican. Her long black hair in a braid. They hug, he lets go. But she reaches up, grabs his arms, puts them back around her.
"Jack used to do that," the daughter says, remembering an early boyfriend. "He'd let go too soon, or forget to hug me at all, and I'd have to take hold of his arms and put them around me."
"Some of them have a hard time reading signs," the mother says. "But your father wasn't like that."
"Neither is Alan," the daughter says. Her present boyfriend is a first class cuddler. He seems to want to cuddle even more than she does, and without it necessarily leading to sex. He even has a word for it. Nuggies, he says. Let's have some nuggies.
The daughter lies back in the blue cocoon of a towel. She reads a book, Investing for Women, but it's boring. She lets the wind turn some pages.
"It's nice to piddle around, the mother says. I don't have to make a list of things to ask you because we only have an hour." The daughter smiles. The mother remembers those years when she saw her daughter infrequently. When the time came for their lunch, she'd been too anxious to enjoy it. There would be scarcely enough time to talk about what was crucial, let alone important past and present trivia. And she needed more time just to look at her daughter! She missed drinking in that pertness, her daughter’s freckled complexion which sunburned easily, and the furrow in the daughter's brow caused by serious consideration of things like the Palestinian-Israeli question.
The lovers come onto the sand. The man strips off his wet suit. They towel themselves, and the woman asks him to oil her. He obliges, and when he finishes, kisses her shoulder. A few divers toting gear walk onto the pier. A boat appears, approaches, docks. The divers climb on. The mynas have flown. The daughter’s book lies open on her lap. Her eyes are closed.
Parents should die before children, the mother thinks. But this is often not the case. Children get cancer or they're killed in war, or run down by drunk drivers. The mother imagines how easily her daughter could be hit by a stray bullet from a gang fracas or from the gun of a crazy person going ballistic in a mall. Or she could die of something toxic, aluminum in deodorants, acid rain or arsenic. Or something not yet detected, say a substance used in the manufacture of rayon. She imagines the daughter, ignorant of this, buying a poison dress that will kill her in five years.
The daughter wakes, takes a drink of water. “We could eat something,” she says.
“Wait just a minute,” the mother says. She stands up with resolve, strides to the water, wades out up to her waist. Takes off the other earring and drops it in. Take this, Old Gal, and be full. If it isn’t enough, tell me. Tell me if I should give up my Subaru, start tithing. As for me, I have only one request: pass, please, on the live sacrifices. Or if you have to have them, please, not daughters.
So: I’ve introduced a flutter of dread. Are you happy now? This is only a fear, of course, and inevitable. Mothers by definition must anticipate the worst. Hence all those St. Christopher medals, those admonitions not to talk to strangers. But you like the fact that I've invoked uneasiness. You perk up. What will happen? Ocean, you think, is the obvious unpredictable element. Even I can’t command it. Let's hear it for water's ubiquitous egalitarianism, which it pulls off by subsuming everyone and everything. Ocean does not discriminate between diamond ring and rubber band. Pretty thises, precious thats are the same in its maw.
Say the daughter were to swim out too far. In the space of one human breath, the sky can shift a shade darker and the molecules of air above the water begin to quiver. The daughter might dawdle in sensual rebuttal, not thinking of anything at all, feeling her body laved in this clean brine. Then--suddenly--the water around her is roiling. It's raining. A smashing wind blows her bobbing body further out. Though she paddles with everything she's got, the shore recedes. The mother marshals the hotel's and then the town's forces--
But it isn't even the rainy season! There are not going to be storms here, not now. Of course the daughter could die in a storm sometime in the future. But it isn't going to happen today, or tomorrow, or the day after. There could be sharks--but there aren't, only a few baby barracudas. The daughter could have a heart attack while floating in this liquid nest--but no. This young woman's heart is a Gold Medal muscle.
There isn’t going to be a downturn, not now, not here. What we’ve got is sunny and mild, and now they’re going to stroll toward the restaurant. O.K., all right. I know. So just for you, because I like you, here’s one last pan of conflict quickies. Man depositing small child in wooden box, closing the lid, hammering the lid shut. The orphanage in Menoufiya, torched to destroy evidence of selling children’s body parts for transplant. Those cremations in which the widow gets to climb on top of her man and go along. And in the distance the Indonesian rainforest crackling, smoky haze drifting over the sea. Or I can get you seats even further back, add a scrim of irony. London, the bananas flambe served by Pakistani waiters to the heads of this year’s ten most successful corporate polluters.
What happens is tortilla soup, a nap. When they wake, it’s back to the beach, towels and books, sunscreen and lemonade. Mothers with babies arrive at water's edge. The tots who can walk sport water wings. The smaller ones are placed on the water in inflated devices resembling small boats or huge ducks. Lemon yellow and fuchsia bathing suits are big. There is floating and digging in the sand with plastic shovels. A boy brings his sister a shell. A girl carries a handful of sand to her mother. And two brave three year olds make a pack, fall backward together into the water.
The mother remembers how the daughter brought her caterpillars, leaves, how she laid these treasures at her mother's feet. How the mother leaned over, admiring each item, examining the daughter’s precious head, the little hands. So much longing to be good, so much giving and receiving. Isn't it something, how this goes on.
"I used to kiss your feet when you were a baby," the mother says. "You had the sweetest toes, and your knees were fat." The daughter laughs. "And the day you sat down with pencil and paper, wearing a pair of underpants on your head--was it fifth grade?--and when I asked about the underpants, you said this was your thinking cap which you needed to win the Daughters of the American Revolution's historical essay prize."
"Oh Mom," the daughter says. She smiles. She remembers the years of being uncertain, angry at her adolescent clumsiness, afraid of not knowing the things she'd needed to know. Now if one of her women is afraid, she locks the Safehouse door and phones the Police Department for her.
Two boys arrive with their father. There is much maneuvering of buckets and shovels. The father assists the excavations, the construction of a moat around a castle. When it's complete, the smaller boy wants to be buried. While late afternoon clouds prepare another sunset, his father and brother oblige him.
"Let's swim out," the mother says. "The sun will soon be down."
They stroll into surf, strike out for deep water. Side by side they crawl, breast stroke, side stroke. When they're sated, they float on their backs. The mother looks up at clouds, their shapes shifting, in drift. She remembers a night when she and two other women were on their way to a concert. They’d had to park far from the hall, cross a soccer field--or was it three soccer fields? The space they’d had to traverse seemed vast, and they were wearing long coats and high heels.
"Let's run," the mother had suggested. Side by side in their flapping coats, their ridiculous shoes, they ran, laughing and panting, and as they ran they filled with an energy that resembled elixir. Though this was probably just the by-product of exertion, it came as an unexpected charge.
For the most part, she thinks, her life has been like that exhilarating running across a field. It's about energy, she thinks. Or more precisely, the coming and going of energy, the lapping back and forth of those waves. Now you see it, now you don’t. Now you see it again. Which energies will sweep to the fore, take us beyond our smallness? She does an inventory. She has made large gestures, yes, but has she become a larger person? What exactly would a larger person be?
But why this self interrogation? She just wants to be here, beside this daughter, enjoy their banter, bob in their mutual loving and being loved. This is a vacation, after all. They came here to bask, to bathe, to sleep. She doesn’t have to think about improving her character. She doesn’t even have to take stock. No one’s counting. She looks up at cirrus drifting above her. Feels the lave of water.
The daughter giggles. I feel like some fisherman’s bobber, she says.
The sun is low, just a little above the horizon.
I wonder if you could fall asleep here, being rocked like this, the mother says.
“And if you did, would you keep floating?”
“Fish sleep, don’t they?”
The daughter giggles again. “Do we know that for a fact?”
They're pretty far out, aren't they.
You anticipate the swell coming out of nowhere, suddenly engulfing the daughter--and also the mother! Both, in their softness, in their hurtable bodies, into the teeth of this devourer! Maybe one of them makes it, maybe neither, you think. It's got to be one of those two.
But I'm telling you, notwithstanding the towering past, it doesn't always happen that way. The sea stays calm. Their hearts don't miss a beat. The air keeps pumping these two with just the right amount of glorious oxygen. The water at its amniotic best, rocking their bodies, lapping them with its lustrum. Believe me, the honor killings and the drafting of children into military service will continue without your anxious anticipation. But now we’re here, and here it's Take Your Daughter To The Beach Day. It's the Week of Painted Toenails. Girls' Month. The Year of the Yoni. Nipples are in, and so are midriffs, navels. Slit skirts and skirts mid thigh are going strong, and the stock of mother/daughter liaisons is up. Joyful teasing and dainty carousing are in.
So it's not your reality? But it could be!
Or think of it this way. I'm serving Pistachio Cream, and you want Cherry Garcia. But has it occurred to you that a time will come, sooner or later, when there won't be either? O.K., you still want Cherry Garcia. What can I say? Either way, it’s carpe diem. Carpe diem, friends, is all we’ve got--until we don’t.
They walk out of the surf, panting, buoyant. Behind them the sun floats in that rosy zone just above the horizon. The Japanese father and son stroll past in their customary tandem. The daughter shakes water from her hair. How good a thick towel feels, she thinks, the pleasant roughness just after you've exerted yourself.
She thinks of a small Japanese girl she saw once in an airport lounge. The little girl was maybe three, not more. She'd turned to her brother and taken his hand, urged him forward until they were running. On her face an expression of utter happiness. She was leading them both toward some lit, shining adventure. Though perhaps this was simply the adventure of running across a very large room, they threw themselves into its ecstasy. It's the kind of joy the daughter feels now with her mother. As though the two of them ran hand in hand toward some dazzling.
"We're living happily ever after, you and I," she says, smiling at her mother, as though this state of affairs is their doing, a joint project.
But the mother frowns. "You know how I detest even coming down with a cold. It's going to be hell when my body really starts to fail."
The daughter stops combing out her hair. "That’s not going to happen for years, Mom. Anyway, when it does, I'll take care of you."
It's a sentence like one of those leaves or pebbles the daughter, at two, brought her. Now the mother tries to imagine herself crippled, in a diaper, catheter and other tubes out the wazoo, unable to sit up by herself, needing someone to feed her, unable to hear much, seeing dimly.
"You'll haul my bag of bones out of bed--is that it, Sweetheart?" She is trying for jauntiness. "Pop me into my wheelchair?"
"Exactly. I’ll push you to the top of the hill behind your house, tool you around in the sunshine. All you’ll have to do is absorb the Vitamin D."
They laugh. I'll this, I'll that. It's the kind of thing the daughter used to say when she played doctor and came to bandage the mother's arm. The daughter’s hair smells of sea brine. Her skin is smooth as the inside of an abalone shell.
"There you’ll be, the daughter says, me beside you while you tell the politicians to go to hell. The daughter flexes her elbow and pulls up her biceps the way the body builders do it. "We can't be stopped!" the daughter says.
Imagine that, the mother thinks. Me, teetering on the edge, and she’ll be waving the flag of Forever!
Not that the daughter is in denial. She simply wants to reassure the mother, to foreground their love. And to invoke the flex of their power. We can’t be stopped. The mother herself has indulged this attitude on numerous occasions. It’s an illusion, of course, but tres familier. You feel in these irrational moments not only that you can handle whatever comes up, but also that you’re probably immortal. At least you’re going to feel immortal for most of the rest of your great swatch of time.
So hey, take more! Don’t stint! There’s an endless supply!
Suddenly the mother gets it: the other earring won’t be nearly enough. Had she really imagined the maw would be sated with a couple of clinking trinkets? Let me be the first to go: a common enough wish, invoked in the attempt to protect one’s child from harm. And a way of creating the illusion that you have a say in this matter. Let me at least decide the sequence here. Then--a little touch of Hollywood--you imagine yourself brave, stepping forward, into the watery mouth.
The sun quivers on the surface of the horizon, and where it begins to touch the water, sends out lengths of shimmer. The mother remembers a day when she was forty, the daughter sixteen. All afternoon leaves had been falling, lazily, one by one. Her life felt peachy keen. There were no holes in it. Though now the daughter was occasionally difficult, this was due to the confusing, contradictory cocktail of adolescence spiking her juices. This stage would pass. The daughter would learn to fly, and their rapport become a place of birdy soaring.
The daughter had come home from school then. She’d walked in the door, walked past her mother in the dining room and not looked at her, not said one word. She'd gone to her room and slammed the door.
A bad day, the mother had thought. Some incident in the locker door slamming halls of the high school. She knew she shouldn’t take it personally. But it had felt like one of those deaths where they don't find the body. She remembers the moment. In that moment she understood she loved her daughter more than she loved her husband, her parents. Not differently. More. She'd kept this to herself, because she hadn't wanted anyone to feel slighted. She hadn't even told the daughter. At times she'd wanted to, but her love had seemed ungenerously narrow. A person ought to love broadly, profligately. She didn't want the daughter to think she was a clinging and niggardly person.
She'd taken her love out then and looked at it. She loved her daughter with a shameless, greedy, exclusive love. This one and no other. Probably no one should love that way. It wasn't balanced. It wasn't moderate. It had been the reason she hadn't wanted another child.
No one should love that way, but she had.
Half the sun has sunk. Afternoon, giving itself to dusk. The daughter combs her hair, humming, working on a tangle. Over the daughter’s shoulder the mother sees the Japanese son walking down to the water alone. Where's the father? Reading The Tokyo Times? Taking his blood pressure? She watches the son dive in. There he goes, kicking away from the coast, going after the light as though he thinks he’s got a shot at it.