My mother sits on the side of the bed, it is 1980 or 1999 or never or sometime in the seventies or perhaps she’s not really there …
Her indent remains after the door closes, after the light is extinguished in the green hall way, where usually people go to sleep and she goes away, away, away …
Even then I could not see well, I squint into the half light, I look at the painted gypsy caravan wardrobe my parents picked up in a flea market before I was born, the cheap thin wood which now, years later, would be considered ‘antique’ – oh the absurdity of those things.
I think of them, crouching on elastic knees, abundant youth, painting, red and blue and yellow. I think of the song I learned in nursery about a rainbow, I think about gays appropriating rainbows later on and how ‘gay’ is not how most of us felt. How appropriation is always ironic.
When I began to stop wetting the bed, my father bought a calendar and stuck it on my wall, he would let me stick stars on the days I did not wet the bed, when I got enough stars he said, something great would happen. It had to be better than the machine I’d had the year before that ‘buzzed’ when I wet the bed and woke me up. I didn’t see how sesame seeds and electric buzzers would stop any child peeing in their nightmares.
A week later I opened my curtains, there was a stuffed toy rabbit on the windowsill, it was slightly damp from being there all night, and it smelt like fur and home. I still have it. It still has me. I never named it. How do you give a name to the earning of pain?
We lived in a basement, it was moldy in the Winter and cool in the Summer. I couldn’t see the sky, I grew to like the idea of living underground, of burrowing deep into the earth beneath city concrete, where the bodies murmured against river mud. I believed in Ghosts. Ghosts most certainly believed in me, they were my companions.
They shimmered past in half-light, caught in doorways and shining windows and dour corners. They contorted into devils by the astigmatism of my eye, becoming faces with fangs, fingers reaching upward. I wondered even then, why I feared the unseen more than the seen. Why what was not real felt more real than real? How ghosts could become my torment, when the world outside felt equally remorseless? Why not put them away and tackle that which existed? Perhaps that is exactly why. For a child who did not know how to make things right.
My wardrobe was little for a child, I was little for a child, my bones were plastic and breakable, they snapped when I folded myself tightly into corners, and the four cheap velour rabbits bought one Easter sat alert and watchful on the windowsill with a half moon shining in and lighting the face of the wardrobe into a grimacing creature.
The rabbits and I heard things. We saw things. Through bad eyes and deaf ears. The sound of my mother leaving, her presence skirting the room like a flamingo dancer, her lithe form, her long graceful arms with impossibly thin wrists, the smell of her on my skin because I was born of her, and then born not at all.
A clock did not exist on the wall, it did not tick down time, it did not remind us of what we had lost, it was not there, it left only the outline of its being like a circle set by sunlight on fading paint. A sundial without hands, without notion of time. Existing as planets exist, not realizing they circle the other.
My clothes grew tight as I elongated and sloughed the years, I kept an empty bottle of my mother’s eye make up remover by my bed, it smelt of her, as her hairbrush did, I wondered how she could live without her hairbrush. I did not wonder how she could live without me.
The tenants of the tall building were unhappy and they smiled a lot to cover it up. They said things like; We will be glad to look after your little girl. When my father cycled away, relieved, lighter, seeking a woman, seeking freedom, I stood on the doorstep and watched and the ache in my chest felt like a piece of lead piercing unnamed parts and I thought of my mother, how when she was my age she watched her parents sail back to Africa whilst she stayed still and I realized … how she and I were interchangeable and only the years were different.
Once, my mother said her mother put perfume on a handkerchief and left it for her and she kept it under her pillow. I kept my mother’s hairbrush under mine, it smelt of the oil of her curly hair, and the damp of my tears and the dust of time, sweeping her skirts along the empty floor.
I am alone now. As I was then. It feels the same. It feels worse because there is no illusion. Nothing like the future to hide behind and solace yourself with. No ‘things will be better when you grow up’ after you have grown up and realized they are not.
Again we are back in my bedroom. She is standing up. She is sitting down. The moment of her departure is fuzzy like my eye sight and I tell her, in years to come I will lose my eye sight and you will gain yours and my father will still be cycling away not knowing they piled on top of me and beat me to pieces, or that three little boys could throw marbles so viciously until a little girls heart burst and she ran away.
She turns to me and says something but it was twenty years ago. It was never. It was yesterday and I cannot see what she says or how she says it, to know if it was meant or just words spilled onto temporary carpet. I cannot know because she did not know, and our act was just a part of a grander outcome, both of us have forgotten and remembered many times since.
I love her in a way that slices through the fat and gets to the bone. I love her in a way I cannot articulate meaningfully but she knows and that’s the worst part, she knows. Maybe ever since I have found my father’s bicycle and learned to follow his trail, looking for her, looking for myself, seeking the way out of the high rise and the pinching boys and the ugliness that turns away when they see what is happening because maybe they are glad.
It is a day later, a year later, a decade past. We sit on roof tops in the weak sun and eat boiled sweets. Ants pick at our toes, dandelion’s die and float in their seed form to be wished upon and we leave them alone, already knowing, wishes are foibles.
You say it won’t hurt but it does and I knew it before it happened but I let it happen because of the ache inside that needed anything, even if it was pain.
The roof top is strewn with the debris of childhood, and my mother’s brush no longer smells of her, it goes through my hair like it was only my straight, boring hair it had to brush its entire life, as if she never existed and we did not sit on the bed together, the curtains closed nearly completely, only a hint of darkness spilling through.
If I had remembered I would have told her then, do not leave me when the time comes in twenty years, do not say goodbye a second, a forth, a nineteenth time. No matter what you think I have done, how disappointed you are in me, what disgust you hold in your heart. Instead remember this, the moment we sat quietly and I put my hand in yours and said it was okay and you cried and I cried from then until forever, without using my eyes or my ears or my mouth.
My father is cycling away from me, he is squinting ahead as if he sees something worth seeing, and I am turning, watching my mother close the door, asking that it be left open just a crack, to let the light in, hearing her steps in the corridor, not quite believing she will never come back. Because children always believe in magic. And Ghosts. And Monsters. And boys with marbles in their cheeks and demons in their eyes.
When I woke next to you and you asked me if I had a bad dream, I watched you as you sank back down into sleep and your hair fell across the pillow, the tangle and darkness of it against white linen. You could have been her, I could have been him, we could have never had a child, I ask you not to, please, do not, I don’t need to be born.
That’s why I was late, and why you struggled for 40 something hours in labor, they should have cut you, small as you were, small like me, but they didn’t, maybe it was cruelty, we have seen a lot of that in our life haven’t we and it wouldn’t surprise either one of us, or maybe it was the belief that women were strong enough no matter what, and we know that to be true also, even as we think it’s a damn shame sometimes.
You were strong enough and I was strong enough – to survive or endure but never really thrive – maybe you did – perhaps you were the only one who could – I had my eyes set on a future that never came, and a bicycle turning the corner, and my grandmother waving me from the street as I climbed the stairs to my class, and just as she turned to go, I ran back and I came outside and called her name and she said; Why aren’t you going to your classroom? And I wanted to say; Why would I go into a classroom? I’m not going to learn anything there? I have learned more here sitting on this bed, watching my mother leave, hearing her say things she did not say, wishing I were as powerful as the God of the wardrobe and not being able to eat my marzipan frog she brought me last. Because she gave it to me and I could not consume it and for it to be gone.
And you would have understood because you had your emotions close to your skin as I have, which makes you easily despised and sometimes admired. Because you were a coward as I have been, letting her be crushed by your absence and thinking it nothing at all, when you set sail again and again leaving her with a handkerchiefand a loneliness the size of Africa. I could not fill that loneliness although good God I tried many, many times, but when you break someone, you can put them back together, it does not mean they can hold anything you then pour into them.
She was the most beautiful woman I ever saw, and that from a child who didn’t yet know how to lie. I compare my lovers to her now. Wonder if they could beat her at chess and laugh because I know they could not. Think on how she managed to stay strong even in the harshest currents, when I cannot always stand without leaning. I look nothing like her, there is only sometimes in the cast of light, a glint of her in my eyes, looking back and when I see it, I ask her, why didn’t you spit me out before I was whole, so that you never had to be disappointed and I never had to lose you, then and now and never.
My grandmother taught me to swim in a basement, I dreamed the river would break its banks and my little home would be drowned. I dreamed my father was on the bottom bunk and I on the top and every time the water receded he was lifeless and I could do nothing, except scream impotently underwater for him to live. My grandmother died before I was old enough to let her know the truth, that I was not her grandchild but a water sprite dredged up from the river mud and set to swimming in dreams not of my own. That I had no parents but the marzipan figurines of night terrors and mares and I peed in my bed until I was too old to tell and old enough to lie.
Learning to swim was the only thing I learned fast and well, everything else came slow and difficult, just like trying to love someone who doesn’t love you, or expressing things too painful for words. I could sit with my parents and paint my wardrobe but I could never, ever, close the chink of light coming in from the slightly opened curtains, spilling on the floor where she walked across, soundlessly, growing dim and incomplete like the china dolls set back on a distant shelf somewhere.
Now I wear heavy glasses and even that is not enough, I cannot drive at night, I see things that are not there, and do not see what is. I think that is quite ironic really all things considered. My stomach hurts to think of how easily the brush goes through my hair, and how girls with curly hair never needed hairbrushes, so how hers became mine, seems like it always was, and the bottles she left behind were empty when she was here, when she was gone, when she never was.
If one day I am asked, I will say, I tried my best, I learned to swim well and I could pick up one of those weighted bricks from the bottom of the azure swimming pool but nobody came to see me swim so I did not compete well and soon I gave it up altogether. I will say I remember my grandmother running after a man who had broken in to watch us swim and bellowing at the top of her voice she scared him off, all 5’1 of her. I think my mother would laugh at that story, she has a wonderful laugh, it lights up her face and makes everyone else in the room join in.
We will not invite the shadows, we will not ask the ghouls or the disappointments to attend. We will stay the two of us, and wait it out. The past, the present and the future. We will talk on other things and not linger on those that prick and make us bleed. We will circumvent the pain like a sleeping lion and I will make her smile at my stories, the way I did once, once some time, some where. I have forgotten exactly when. The two of us, so alike and so different, sisters, strangers, with love the size of a river, with regret as deep as a drowning. Things never said on the tip of my tongue, burning with love, as we are quiet on the edge of the bed, with my mother about to leave and yet, still there, and me, always leaning, leaning towards her. Wanting to reach out. And tell her to stay.