Once my mother began to date, I measured time by the era of a particular man. The coming and going of a boyfriend shifted the mood of our house more than any season of nature or any passage from one grade to the next.
When my mother’s first suitor knocked, I answered the door. In stepped the man, medium height, in a dark coat, with a coarse pepper-colored beard. He hollered, “Hello!” as if I were a toddler, not thirteen. I muttered a response just as a warm front of Chanel No. 5 filled the foyer. A moment later my mother sidestepped down the stairs through the cloud of perfume, her parade-float smile lipsticked pink. The man flared his nostrils. I covered my nose.
In a black skirt that fell to her knees and a royal blue sweater, my mother looked trim and curvy. I wished the sweater were mine, then shifted my eyes to glare at the man. He wasn’t what I had pictured. He couldn’t replace my father, gone since my parents’ divorce just one year before. I started up the stairs toward my room.
“Come say hello to Don,” my mother said, wobbling in the new high heels I’d helped her pick out.
I slithered my arched feet down the last stairs, shuffling my wool socks over the carpet. When Don and I shook hands, a spark flashed between us. His mouth, buried in the squirrelly beard, rounded to an oh.
“When will you be home?” I asked, already eager for their evening to end.
“After the symphony,” my mother said in a singsong tone that didn’t match the stillness on her face, as if a key connective wire inside her had come unplugged. I hoped a man — though not this one — would jiggle it back into place.
After Don there was Ray, who beached a gray Cadillac in our driveway, the kind of car my grandfather drove.
“That one is going to croak soon,” I said to my mother, who peered through the curtains with me at Ray’s jaunty hobble toward our door.
“Shhh,” she said, but giggled.
I revved my purple wool socks on the carpet and avoided contact with the metal banister to save my static charge. I shook Ray’s hand, and he jerked but kept his dentures on rigid display. My mother, eyes glassy, didn’t seem to notice.
Then came Richard: beady black eyes, hooked nose, owl-like head on the shoulders of a beige trench coat. When he came to pick my mother up, he didn’t remove his leather gloves or even shake my hand.
“He wasn’t very nice to me,” I said later.
“He voted for Reagan,” my mother said with a sigh. “He doesn’t care if they yank out all the trees.”
That first cycle of men left me wary of strangers, and perhaps my mother grew wary of me, a different kind of stranger: a bristling teenager. Saturdays my father shuttled me to his house one Washington, D.C., suburb away. Everything there was new: carpet, car, wife. I raided their vast white kitchen for cans of RavioliOs and boxes of Wheaties to bring home. Back at my mother’s, we fought about my shoes on the stairs, my dishes in the sink, and who had eaten the last slice of cheese.
Between suitors, the voice of Ram Dass echoed through our downstairs rooms. He arrived in the form of cassette tapes from my mother’s younger sister, Susie-Hope, who lived in a tepee in Arkansas with a man named Merlin. I knew that they had traveled for years in India and later picked fruit alongside migrant workers in the U.S. They’d had some brush with the law, the details of which remained unclear.
In contrast, Ram Dass explained himself in full. He made an ideal boyfriend for my mother. He could be turned off and on, he had one mood only — upbeat — and, unlike my father, he would never leave. He talked to my mother while she drove to night classes at the University of Maryland, his voice low, soothing, certain. It made sense for her to love a steady voice, since she had decided to study speech pathology.
Those tapes started my mother’s new habit of explaining the unexpected, events both good and bad, in terms of “the cosmic delivery system,” as if God were a weary postman. The package would arrive, but not always with the desired contents, and not always on time.
“Be here now!” I would mimic the sonorous voice of the guru, whose advice I scorned. I wanted to buffer myself from the feelings that floated in our house like dust kicked up from old carpets. I would lie detached for hours with my ear pressed to my white clock radio. I read books until sunrise, then slept at school. In the shower I stared at my feet until the water ran cold.
At last there was Gerard, with his blue eyes and blond hair, a Swiss man with an accent. He brought something into our house that no one else had: shears, curling brush, and salon spray. Gerard was a hairdresser in the building next to my grandparents’ Chevy Chase condo. Every Friday, before taking my mother out, he trimmed my hair. I sat on a stool on the back porch, and neither of us talked as the scritch scritch of scissors sprayed tiny hairs onto the boards beneath us. He didn’t say, “You look great,” or, “You’ll outgrow your skin problem.” Instead he helped me with the aspect of my appearance I could still control.
With Gerard around, my mother began to cook and bake again — lasagna, shrimp, steak, fudgy chocolate cake with whipped-icing flowers. The house smelled as it had before the divorce. When Gerard stayed for dinner, my mother touched his elbows and knees and spoke in a soft voice, a tone she dropped when she spoke to me.
Whenever I used the phone, I’d hear the click of her picking up the other receiver.
“I have to make a call,” she’d say. “Get off.”
“I’m talking to a friend,” I would say.
She would stomp downstairs and set the yellow kitchen timer. “Ten minutes.”
“But you talk for hours. It’s not fair.”
“Fair,” came her response, as if dating at age forty-four made that word obsolete. “I’m the adult. And I am going steady with Gerard.”
Our moments of détente that year came before my mother‘s nights out with Gerard. Once, I found her frozen in the living room by the stereo. She confessed she did not know how to “fast-dance,” though Gerard was taking her to do just that. I offered to show her, and I riffled through a stack of albums until I found a decade-old Donna Summer record. I lowered the needle onto the eight-minute track “Last Dance.”
I hadn’t danced since the all-girls summer camp in the Poconos two years earlier. There I had stepped back and forth and snapped my fingers to the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me.” I demonstrated this now to my mother. Her moves were even more rigid than mine. Her head and neck and shoulders seemed fused. If I moved like my old Barbie, with plastic limbs that swung in straight lines, my mother was a nutcracker, with wooden joints that didn’t bend. Like the visually impaired leading the stone black blind, I did my two-step and shouted instructions over Donna Summer: “Snap your fingers! Move your head! It’s separate from your neck! Lose the grimace! Sing along! It’s the ‘last dance, last chance for love’!” The music overwhelmed us both, and we jogged in circles around the room, flailing our arms up and down. My sister, home from college, came down and closed the curtains.
Breathless at the song’s end, I said, “Don’t do that with Gerard.”
I hoped Gerard would stick. My mother stared at him with puppy eyes — a gaze he increasingly didn’t meet. At dinner he studied the mahogany cabinet full of antique plates, as if thinking thoughts in French. I worried about that look. I wanted to grip my mother’s shoulders and shake her until she saw Gerard’s weariness. When she did sense the shadow of his darkened mood, she would lighten her voice and offer sweets: “How about the strawberry shortcake I made today?”
I didn’t know what was wrong with Gerard, but I thought it would take more than cake to fix. I remembered a particular meal just before the divorce: my father slumped in front of the TV while my mother pulled out every pan and cookbook in the kitchen. They had told us a month earlier they might “separate,” which meant nothing to me then. That evening, as the cheers of the Super Bowl filtered from the living room, my mother had whispered to us by the stove, “Girls, I want you on your best behavior. If the Redskins win, if I pull off this shrimp and cocktail sauce, we might have a chance.”
I saw now in Gerard’s tight smile the beginnings of an absence. It was a shift in the air, like the moment the furnace shuts off, that gap before cold creeps back.
Toward the end Gerard’s trims had a grim intensity.
“Do you want to look?” he said after the final cut, and he offered me a mirror.
I shook my head, then pulled a handful of my hair in front of my eyes. A few ends had split already.
In the weeks after Gerard left, my mother and I drifted through the house, too demoralized even to fight. Then one day in the early fall, a man with gray hair down his back and a gray beard to his navel steered a dusty pickup truck with a covered bed and pink curtains into our driveway. From the passenger side emerged a lithe, tanned woman. A globe of black hair sprang several inches from her head.
“Remember to call your aunt Susie by the name ‘Hope,’ ” my mother said as we jostled for the prime view at the front-window curtains.
“Because she changed her name to ‘Rainbow Hope.’ ”
“But you call her ‘Susie,’ ” I said.
“At least try ‘Susie-Hope,’ ” she said. “I agreed to call her that if she promised to always wear her seat belt.”
We scrambled to the doorway as Susie-Hope sauntered barefoot up the asphalt in threadbare cut-off jeans and a sheet of stretchy purple fabric across upright breasts. A basket hung from the crook of one elbow, filled with scraps of bright fabric and a silver flute. She raised a hand and shouted, “Namasté!” The man, who of course was Merlin, stayed behind, raising the hood of their truck.
“You are not coming in here with those hooves,” my mother said to her sister, gazing downward at Susie-Hope’s feet.
I gawked, too. Her feet were knobby, bare, and black as soot. Susie-Hope widened her eyes, brushed one foot against the green plastic mat, heel to toe, and let forth a whinny. Giddiness shot through me. To my surprise, my mother laughed. Merlin, still fiddling with the truck’s metal parts, lifted his head at the sound of Susie-Hope’s bray.
“Can I take your basket?” I said to my aunt.
Still my mother blocked the door. “You are going to have to use the garden hose. Or put on shoes.”
Susie-Hope said, “We released shoes when we were in India.”
“You can wear my socks,” I said, as I bent to peel the purple socks from my feet.
Merlin stalked up the stairs toward us, tall, gaunt cheeked, unsmiling. His feet were also blackened, and his toenails would have secured him to the branch of a tree. I caught a scent like burnt potpourri. He pressed his beard against his chest with grease-stained fingers. In a prim English accent I associated with PBS, he said, “Have you any coolant?”
“I don’t think so,” my mother replied.
He nodded, jogged back down the stairs.
Meanwhile Susie-Hope pulled my purple socks over her unshaven calves.
“Kathy will show you the tub,” my mother said. My aunt leapt into the hall. My mother whispered to me, “The gray towels.”
Upstairs I set the basket down and fetched one of the good peach towels from the closet. Susie-Hope plunked herself down on the tub’s edge, opened the faucet full force, and thrust her foot into the spray.
“You were barefoot in India?” I said.
“For two years at an ashram.”
I didn’t know what an ashram was, so I pictured the TV movie in which everyone drank Kool-Aid and died. My own feet, like my hair, were subject to constant coddling. I painted and repainted my toenails in seasonal pinks, purples, reds. I massaged peppermint lotion onto my heels. I couldn’t control my face, but I could have been a model from the ankles down.
“Aren’t you afraid you’ll step on a rock?” I asked.
“I can’t even feel this water.” Steam rose from the tub, and brown water spun down the drain.
“But what if you step on glass?”
“If you are relaxed enough, your feet just groove over things.” She arched her foot and pointed her granite toes, ballerina-style. She regarded her feet with a tilted head and a faint smile. I had given my own feet that look. Where I had polish, she had dirt.
“And we are so blessed in the First World,” she continued. “The water just runs from the faucet when you turn the knob.”
“Where else would water come from?” I said.
She turned off the handle and reached for the towel. “Stick with me, kiddo.”
At dinner my mother served pasta with red sauce, though I knew she had prepared hamburger patties. It turned out Susie-Hope and Merlin were vegetarians and had even spent a year as “fruitarians.”
“So what are you now?” I asked.
“Just savages,” my aunt said.
For dessert we had sliced melon, and Susie-Hope buried her nose in the rind. When she’d finished, she lifted the white plate, stuck her tongue down her chin, and licked the porcelain clean.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that in front of everyone,” my mother said, her tone a plea.
I wondered who “everyone” was, and if it was OK to lick a plate in private.
“It’s just so tense here I couldn’t resist,” Susie-Hope said. That surprised me — my mother and I had kept our bickering brief with the arrival of our guests. Merlin excused himself, but I pulled my chair forward.
“Kathy, you may be excused as well,” my mother said.
With an eye-roll of protest, I slid from my chair and padded into the living room. There I stood in the nook beside the TV, my ear toward the dining room.
Immediately they started to discuss my father. “It’s a difficult thing, to release,” Susie-Hope said. “A divorce is a total shattering of the ego.”
My mother said, “I realize it’s for the best.”
She did? That was news. She had recently referred to my father as “that asshole.”
“Gerard was the first person I slept with out of wedlock,” my mother said. “He laughed at me for being such a prude.”
“A Frenchman. Maybe he was right,” Susie-Hope said.
“Swiss.” Now my mother sharpened her voice. “I didn’t start quite as young as you did. Running off to the lake with Juddy Weiss —”
My aunt interrupted. “That’s a total myth.”
“Well, you slept with that saxophone player your freshman year. Don’t deny that.”
“In college, yes. I absolutely slept with that sax player. It was the sixties, Barb. I slept with the band.”
“See,” my mother said.
They paused. It struck me that my mother was using the same tone on Susie-Hope that she usually used with me, yet it didn’t faze my aunt.
“Barb, you already married the perfect lawyer husband, and where did it get you? Don’t worry so much about the future. Enjoy the now.”
The phantom of Ram Dass drifted through the room.
“You married Merlin,” my mother shot back.
“That was so he could stay in the country after the bust. Those Arkansas good old boys were ready to throw the book at us nudist Buddhists.”
I inched forward in my nook. I had to hear this.
“What about the dope?” My mother called all drugs “dope,” all alcohol “booze.”
“Oh, Barb. You should hear yourself. Merlin and I liked to relax before we jammed with our flutes. To the extent that we shared our harvest, we saw it as a community service.”
“You could have gone to prison,” my mother said.
“I still ask myself what I would have done in prison. I think I would have taught meditation. In the end, that disaster was the cosmic delivery system that put me back on track.”
In bed that night, my mind reeled. I had forgotten about cosmic deliveries. Now I thought I might have just received one. Things could go terribly wrong and still turn out ok. Even faced with prison, people made plans.
Over the next couple of days, while Merlin poked his head beneath the truck’s hood or studied diagrams of yurts, Susie-Hope ground peanut butter in the Cuisinart and baked whole-wheat-millet muffins in the oven. In the mornings I watched Susie-Hope’s ritual of sitting motionless, cross-legged, with her hands on her knees. On the fourth day, I stared at her for at least twenty minutes from the doorway, my leg jiggling. I spoke as soon as her eyes opened.
“Why do you do that?”
“It helps me to be with the sadness,” she said.
I felt a jolt. Since my father had left, no one had said the word sadness. I had heard the words stingy and schmuck, but sadness seemed obscene, even more taboo than the topic of sex. Sadness was like my period, something that came regularly, to be borne in silence.
Susie-Hope unfolded her legs and raised her arms overhead. Suddenly I sensed the sadness, as if naming it had called it into the room.
“Why would you want to do that?” I asked.
“Because sometimes that’s all I have, the willingness to sit with it,” she said.
This startled me again. I had thought the point of her silence was to cleanse, to calm. Instead she seemed to suggest that she steeped herself in feeling, a bag of potent tea in the water of stillness. I had no urge to sit with sadness. I did want to sit with Susie-Hope, though, and I lowered myself to the floor. I watched her go through a series of moves — arms up, feet out, head down — and wondered how it felt to stretch like my aunt.
At the end of her weeklong visit, Susie-Hope took me to Great Falls. We walked through the woods to the canal that ran parallel to the Potomac River.
“I used to skip school and come out here all the time,” Susie-Hope said. “Your mother got stuck being the good daughter. You have to give her a break. You have to understand her givens.” I knew only her takens: her marriage, her security. Susie-Hope continued: “Your mother is tied to this earth by a short rope. Merlin’s connection to the material world is more like a Slinky pulled to its limit. You and me, we have a shorter Slinky.”
I nodded, not yet sure I wanted what she had.
“Your father tried to loosen his rope and wound up back the same way, tied down in the suburbs. He’s the most tragic of all.”
“Or maybe he just cut his ties,” I said. The jaggedness of my voice surprised me. Something about the openness of all those trees and the absence of human-made sound made it easier to speak. “Maybe he just got free.”
“You call that ‘free’?” She turned, hands on her hips.
Before I could answer, she was moving forward again. We headed into the trees, toward the brown river and piled boulders. I remembered my father at the TV, my mother in the kitchen. Then I saw my father’s new kitchen, bigger and whiter than ours. I remembered Don and Ray and Richard and Gerard in rapid sequence. I had reels of these images, like a foreign film with no subtitles.
Susie-Hope and I walked without speaking, completely off the path. Finally I took my shoes off too. At first the damp dirt against my soles felt cold and strange. We reached the river’s edge. The rushing sound rose as the water turned to a white spray of falls. Long nerves of feeling that had coiled inside me suddenly spread out, unfurled into the trees and sky, which seemed large enough to hold all that I felt. I let myself blend with the river’s endless sigh. We were close enough to the falls that tiny flecks of water touched my cheek. Droplets stuck like jewels to the tips of my aunt’s frizzy black hair.
After a while Susie-Hope raised her hands out on either side of her to softly say, “This is where water comes from.”