I had a nightmare soon after my mother died. She is dying and I am right there. I ask if she’d like a sponge bath and she says, yes. I get her naked and slippery and then I fall on her and she grips my arms, her long nails painted fresh as blood, and makes me promise never to leave.
The minute I woke I regretted that promise. When I was nine my grandmother died and I swore off pleasure. I gave up ballet and had ear infections all Winter. So I know about these promises. They stick. I tried to squirm out. It was just a dream and my mother hadn’t heard. But out the window in the evergreen tree a part of it kept moving; it was too big for a bird or a pussycat so I knew it was my mother and she had.
Bob and I sleep on a king mattress in the living room. It has a fireplace and dark wood beams and a wall of glass doors that open onto a balcony. We’ve let the front yard go wild. The bushes are almost as tall as trees and come up close. In the dark the leaves look like kids pressed against the glass. When the wind blows, the branches scrape the rain gutter and the house groans.
I was wound up and needed an orgasm but I couldn’t get anyplace. I thought maybe it is wrong to have orgasms with a mother just dead, so even though I felt a big one building I stopped. Bqb was sleeping; after all, he still had a mother. I lay there pulling my T-shirt down toward my gray and white speckled socks, my purple velour bathrobe wrapped around my neck, and remembered a talk with my mother in 1978.
We were driving up University Avenue in Berkeley, returning from an excursion to San Francisco. Bob and I had just begun to live together. My mother had been looking for placemats that would match the dishes and pick up some of the color in the drapes and rug and living room couch. She was good at that.
After lunch in a tiny shop on Maiden Lane, my mother said to the salesgirl, “Have you something in this fabric and finish with a bit more gray in the blue?” When she brought out the right color my mother’s face couldn’t have been nicer, her eyes, fierce and moist, we-did-it.
But a moment later, it was gone, faded like an old rose, my mother shook her head, no, “The color is fine but we need something with a bit less excitement.” My mother had discovered snakes in the border design. We didn’t get close again.
My mother was a lady. That’s how I remember her. She wore a slip and girdle and bra and stockings. She wore more clothes undressed than I wear on Saturday night. Take off my black satin jeans and T-shirt and that’s it. My mother was wearing a medium weight brown herringbone suit, slim skirt, a pumpkin silk blouse, two generous strands of pearls and her long thin legs were crossed at the knees. I wanted to tell her about me: Blake and penises, Sophocles and vaginas, harmonicas and breasts. But all the way across the Bay Bridge she continued to mourn those mats, as if they were the key to everything. It was mats, monogrammed stationery, guest towels and a good Winter coat. I started wishing we had found the mats. She was a lady, remember, high heels, matching bag, gloves and a hat, even for a walk on Telegraph Avenue.
Halfway up University, in front of Walt’s Drugs, I said, “Mom, I’ve never had an orgasm with a man.” I said the “with a man” under my breath but it got us off placemats. When mother was surprised she’d get a little smile on her top lip.
And then she surprised me. “All you have to do is cross your legs and squeeze.” She said it real easy like it might true.
I was driving a shift car and it stalled out at Milvia. My mother looked nice sitting in my 1959 orange Opel, a taxicab driver screaming, cars honking, as I started thanking and forgiving her for everythlng and remembering how she was always crossing her legs, all the way back in my memory, first one way and then the other, in the living room, in front of the TV, soaking in the bathtub. When we got to Barrows Hall for the lecture on the rise of civilization, I tried it and tried it and tried.
At four o’clock I woke Bob and crawled in close. My mother was still hanging in the tree. I was not happy she died, not at all. I loved her a lot. Bob was warm and my breasts fell into his hands. He has big hands so if he moves them around a little he can brush my breasts and tummy and hairs all at once. I like that. We fit together nice and I start to feel like a bowl of ripe fruit chunks, papaya and honeydew and fig and pineapple and that sweet pickled stuff that comes with cottage cheese and soft rolls before dinner. I went off like a fat book of matches. It got the bottoms of my feet and sure enough as soon as I felt better, my mother stopped moving in the tree.
I had another dream. I’m in my mother’s Mercedes sedan. She is young, shoulder length hair parted in the middle, dark and smooth. She drives through the graveyard at 100 miles an hour. I know I am going to die. All the dead people are out of the graves standing still like Michelangelos.
I woke up scared. I’m like everyone else. I want to live forever but once my mother died I knew that was the end of that. I like being alive, except for one thing, everyone keeps dying. That’s the way it was in Shakespeare, too, one tragedy after another. It was getting light out and everything looked better. Bob smelled sweet and looked nice but I know I’m next this time and I’ve got this big grief in me that I have to push around, maybe forever, like shuffleboard, a long bony stick, a giant shuffle. You have to keep poking at the grief or it turns into a mountain and throws rocks at you, and then, well, no more orgasms.