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Authors: Susanna Sonnenberg

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BOOK: She Matters
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• • •

A beautiful twenty-four-year-old and her two daughters, five and three, we move into the big apartment. The front door is propped open, men carry furniture in, and she directs them. We're settled. My sister and I get one room and in the first weeks sleep on the floor, heaps of blankets, which is fun, our Snoopies propped against the baseboard in the daytime. Then we get the bunk bed with a ladder, like a tree house indoors. We drape sheets and make caves. We catalog everything—toys, tights, markers; cardboard boxes deep with Barbies, their hair an unfixable mess and their plastic chewable shoes lost on the bottom; a clock with digital numbers in glowing segments; bracelets we fight over; diaries with gold locks. The keys dangle from black strings. We are six and four. I have a transistor radio, and on the top bunk I listen with the volume so low it almost isn't sound. I must hold still to hear, and shallow my breath, but it's worth it. I don't want to share. My
sister likes pigtails, and I part her hair before school, snapping the colored elastics into knots that will hold all day. I am seven and she is five. I take her hand to go to the subway station, getting us to school, galloping the steps if we feel the train's approach. When we're late, I hail a taxi on Park and have the driver drop us half a block from the school. I've heard our mother say to drivers, “The far-right corner, please.”

Our mother sleeps in the other bedroom, curtains pulled, her somber vault scented by tea rose oil and lingering soaps from yesterday's bath. She keeps vases of flowers until the water needs changing. The mirror on the bathroom door makes two of her, reflects her dark head on a pillow. She's twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven. This room (and we
the soft spot where her doorknob gives, her carpet's tread under our naked feet) contains her swirl—the pillboxes, evening bags, pharmacy bottles, envelopes, our three passports, her sandals with tiny buckles on the ankle straps, the mess of
magazines and
sections of the
phone numbers on torn paper, and dollar bills, silk scarves. We take the scarves and make games, until she says from sleep to put them back. She has a “bad back”; she tells us it was from landing on her tailbone, a long time ago, and I hear the word
as it would be for dogs or old milk, definitive. She sends us down to the pharmacy to pick up her medicines. My sister says, “Can we buy gum?” and I'm the one who gets to hold the money. Late in afternoon—some afternoons, the good ones—her door is wide, and sun pours into the hall, and our apartment fills with lifted voices, sparkling, the three of us one sweet sound. She skips across the living room. I watch my sister, I watch my mother. She watches both of us, and herself.

Our living room looks the way my mother wants it. She's chosen the lamps, the art, where it hangs (until she moves it in all-night
frenzies). There's a Campbell's Soup can Andy Warhol signed at a party, which she keeps on the mantel, and a Cornell box she stole from somewhere. She explains Joseph Cornell, “The most important . . .” She decides on amaryllis in February, paperwhites in April, or jonquils. Hyacinth drenches the apartment in scent. She sings to Leonard Cohen and makes me sad: “Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river . . .” She sings to “Angie:” “You can't say we never tried,” but I don't like the figure veiled on that record cover in smoky yellows, can't tell if it's a man or a woman; and is that her on the front of the Bob Dylan record, a morning she was without us in some New York street? I know it's not, but I've seen her next to men that way, all leaned in and clutching, and she grips us like that, her daughters, when we're walking.

When I'm in high school, and she's divorced a second time, we will tighten further into a womanly purity, a common party, evening plans for going out together. We'll drink champagne from the same fluted glass as we get ready, passing it in exchange for the lipstick, the blush brush. She'll assess me, add a belt, reach it around and blouse out the silk shirt I'm wearing, which she has lent to me. “That's better.” She tells us men notice us, but she's the one they talk to. We will trade our successes in the taxi, laugh at men's fumblings and at the bartenders, at the ignorance we are so good at spotting.

But before we are ourselves women with her, when we are still
our mother's friends are constant women. They ring the doorbell, embrace us, stalk past in their heeled boots—the gossip on the couch, the vulgar confidences, the vodka cold from the freezer (yet never frozen, a trick I assume only she knows). Men are the focus and the business, and the women, here in our apartment, conduct it. Olga is bitchy, and Corinne is tearful, and Melinda is regal—“It's her Latvian cheekbones, girls”—and Samantha lives
with us for a bit, cross-legged on my mother's bed as she names her questions and mistakes, before she dyes her clothes orange in our bathtub and moves to India.

The women phone, and if our mother's asleep I take careful messages. She wakes and rings back, talks for
as we pass with intended clumsiness outside her doorway, hoping for attention. “Come over,” we hear her say. “Girls! Tidy up! Olga's coming!” She loves happy emergencies. Her friends bring her potted flowers, pull glasses from the kitchen cupboard, they flop and bare themselves, and my mother, only beginning to grow up—
I will be twenty-eight again this year, ho ho
—listens, plays, waits for praise and pleasures and opportunity. She resists no one. The girlfriends inhale, take the spell and pick up their drinks; they have dark laughs, cries and barks, so much of
something. We are sent to our room.

• • •

My mother always had a main best friend, a passionate, sudden sister who'd last a year, maybe. Bev lasted longest because she lived in our building. She was divorced, or about to be. They traded flirty banter in the elevator, their heads inclined above ours. Bev's Irish setters pressed against our legs, and my sister and I handled their silky jowls, wiped saliva on our pants. My mother used to say, “If you can't find me, come upstairs.” I'd press the PH elevator button—a homework problem, a costume idea—ride up and knock. They stopped their low sounds and shrewd cackles. My mother's voice called, “Who is it? Come in!” She sat in the middle of Bev's couch, a wine bottle open on the table. They faced each other, a knee up each and a stemmed glass in hand. As the intruder, I sensed the precious mood, its boil they tended. “I'll be down in ten minutes,” my mother said. Bev knew things that I didn't know,
my mother's needs and calculations, certain whereabouts. This was okay with me. I was hoping some grown-up would take over. Thirty years later, after she'd gotten sober, Bev wrote to me, “I was not as aware as I should have been. I'm sorry.”

Fiendish activity, her closet thrown open, spent theater tickets and unsheathed letters on the bed, my mother menaced the rooms and dug things from drawers and shoved them into her bag, before snapping up her keys. “Don't stay up,” she called from the front door. “Telly off at nine!” We promised, and we disobeyed. We didn't want her to go, but then she was gone, wonderful, and we raced to the kitchen, stood on tiptoes, reached the back of the freezer for frozen yogurt bars. We rooted around in her closet, where the floor roiled with deflated boots and high heels tossed apart from their mates. The limp hems at various lengths, scented by tea rose, suggested her, reminded us happily but did not confuse us, did not complicate our business. In person she could frighten us, as her lips went white and rigid, her spit filled with accusations. She was the greatest storm, although I made myself brave, unshakable, tried to show that to my sister. Cocaine-fierce days were followed by sluggish comas on the bed, doll-size Demerol bottles mostly empty on the dresser. I didn't think it strange, just her, us—empty glasses back to the kitchen, syringe wrappers a litter to be cleared from the bathroom floor. When the phone rang, I ran to answer in the kitchen, erect with maturity, and used a quiet voice to preserve her sleep, our valued calm.

We could wake her for Pet. That wasn't her real name, but they called each other that, courting twinness, handing the name back and forth in conversation. They'd been fifteen together in England, sixteen, flaunting themselves. Pet shared the vital past, a land prior to me that baffled my comprehension. When they spoke my mother's voice grew precise with British consonants, and higher. On
Pet's visits—deliriously rare—I'd hear their gushing tones, creep to my mother's door, and look. They sat face-to-face on the bed, cocaine drawn out in busy strands over a mirror balanced on my mother's legs. They babbled the names of schools, train stations, a boutique—our
!—or a boy at a dance they'd both rebuffed but secretly desired, and they blurted long strings of events, so foreign they upset me, a wrong universe. “Come in, darling,” my mother said, seeing me. She wanted me to feel the bestness of this friend, her importance. Pet held back her long, long hair as she bent over my mother's lap to sniff that energetic sniff.

• • •

I don't know my mother anymore. I don't know my sister. I splintered away, constructed a remote life. I did not want to be reachable. As soon as I left my mother for boarding school, she took in a new daughter. She'd moved to New Mexico by then with my sister. She'd bought a house, adobe, three-bedroom, one for each of us, she said. The new girl was a little older than I, her parents dead, and my mother began to tell people she'd adopted her, which she hadn't. She introduced Danni as her eldest, which I overheard the first time with the feeling of being batted off a cliff. When I protested my mother called me selfish, and said “Danni has
no one
but us.” Danni got the room meant for me, and Danni and my sister grew inseparable, and in the next years Danni, my sister, and my mother shared the champagne, went out together, traded men's attentions. The three of them lived, it seemed to me, like a huddle of enormous mice, all warmth and squeaking enthusiasms. With no power to explain, no effect of my hurt, I started to uninvolve myself. I'd act polite at the news of Danni—her teaching certificate, her job interview—but fumed privately. She married and had daughters, whom my mother called her grandchildren, but, then,
I'm the one who decided to break daughterhood, who kept my children away.

The last time I overheard my mother's voice, I was on the phone to my grandmother. My mother was with her, wedging herself into the conversation, although no one was talking to her. My grandmother, whose concentration at ninety-six was fading, kept trying to stop her, sweetly and with exasperation, so that she could hear my answers to her questions. Finally, giving up, she said, “Is there anything you want to say to Mummy?” “Tell her I love her,” I said. It just flew out, uncatchable and a complete truth. I hadn't seen my mother in years—since the summer of 1998, and now it was late 2006—refused to myself that I missed anything of her. “She says she loves you,” my grandmother said. “I know she does!” my invisible mother sang, echoey, deeper in the room. “Tell her I love her, too.” I know you do, I thought. My mother's perpetual
tempting me with possibility. Weren't we silly, she might say? What was the matter with us? Let's be close again. My doomed and complicated longing surged, and I had to hang up.

The two of us had no
. Our furious fires had burned everything to the ground. As I'd grown, each time I brought my mother in, called for her, or let her advise my course, I was ruptured. She came up to college the first October weekend, for instance, and hit it off with my roommate. The girl, Amy, was athletic and suburban, a type I'd never encountered, but we'd steadied each other the first disoriented weeks, stood side by side in the uncertain gaggle for registration. I liked this potential, the reliable connection, not too intimate, born of random assignment. Just right. Amy and I didn't talk of her marketing major or my focus on Renaissance literature, but at night, while she toweled her hair, I flipped through the spiral bound face-book and we mock-imagined dating prospects. It was fun.

Then my mother showed up. She held my face to hers—“Oh, Sue, my bunny”—her searing gaze that always turned to sweet tears for both of us. Finally she looked at Amy, and wanted to know her secrets. She was so good at that, able to convince anyone that they were meant for each other. The girl gave away real truths about her mother and father and desires she'd never spoken of to me in our enforced rapport. Yes, Amy admitted, she was having sex with her new boyfriend, or was very close—“You are?” I said—and my mother went into high gear, how we were going to Planned Parenthood—
were—this very afternoon, getting her on birth control. The pill? A diaphragm? A little flustered, my roommate flashed me the your-mom's-great look I'd seen cross the faces of my friends. “She's cool,” they said. “I wish my mom was like her,” they said.

It seemed a good plan, whatever my mother organized, until later, when my roommate's parents appeared, and my mother, enjoying her dorm-room dominion, reassured them that she had seen to their daughter's contraceptives. My roommate moved out the next week. Twenty-five years later, she wrote to me in vicious recall of that ruinous afternoon. She told me that what she remembered of our acquaintance was that she hated me. My mother, before the weekend was out, had forgotten the episode, had no sense of its effects.

One weekend, one scotched friendship. That's not why you lose your mother, not why you and your sister stop speaking, but it's partly why, the exhaustions of hope at last overwhelming, the dramas of close women so incendiary. You are accustomed to telling yourself to try again, and you try again, again. Finally, you can't, and you stop.

BOOK: She Matters
4.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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