With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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Twenty years of an Armani-suit advertising career and now Anna can’t write a brochure. Her pages are gibberish. Scattered sentences almost touch on the subject then wander off to drool at the night sky. Her mind has stepped into a canyon, paused to look at her and say, Whoops, before dropping out of sight, taking with it her livelihood, many of her friends, and a good portion of her memory. Now her days go by without consulting her.
She’s decided to ask her son for advice. Her son, the ADD kid who once punched his way through a door; who later paraglided into war-torn countries, grew his unwashed hair into dreadlocks, and killed the animals he ate with a bow and arrow. He could make a mean fried venison.
At twenty-nine he has an eight-year marriage, a seven-year-old daughter, and his own brand of rum, made from pure sugarcane in the cloud forests of the Sierra Mazateca, Mexico. The rum has made him rich and the unspoken head of their family.
Anna’s been thinking for days about what to say to him, because she’s had days to think. Many days. Actually seven months since she cut and ran from her only source of income. She wasn’t supposed to touch her nest egg, but she’d been touching it a lot lately. They were heavy petting. Soon her nest egg would fly away and start a life of its own.
She made a list of things to say to Peter but lost it, and now she remembers only two not to say: Do not tell him you ended your career. Do not say, Help me.
“Hey,” her son says.
She wants to hang up, but he knows it’s her. There is no going back.
“Peter, how are you?”
“What’s wrong?” This is how it is with him.
“How’s my granddaughter?”
“Tia? Tia’s great. She’s reading right now. She has to read thirty pages a day since they don’t have real school. What’s wrong?”
“Well, I was interviewing this architect in Aspen who designs straw-bale mansions. Only in Aspen, right?”
“And I had my dress on inside out, of all things.” This was not going to end well.
“It was a bold print. It looked the same on both sides.”
She tells him she can’t remember names, faces, what happened yesterday. She reminds him about the time she didn’t recognize herself in one of his photographs. “And I’m tired, Peter. I think that’s the main problem. I wake up, and I’m tired.”
“So sleep, Ma.” His voice is getting higher. He sounds young, crushable. “What has you so tired?”
Anna wants to say, Everything, but that would sound suicidal.
Her brain maelstrom began last year, when she and her son’s family were vacationing on an island off the coast of Oaxaca, Mexico, in a “town” with no cars, no police, barely any electricity. They ate food laid at their feet in woven platters: Scallops and lobster pulled from the sea. Tamales with mussels inside. Empanadas filled with banana or custard.
She was thinner then, her hair sun-bleached. She wore no bra or makeup, her sundress clingy from her habit of cooling her sand-burned feet in the sea. She forced herself to swim in the choppy waves and once went out so far that a manta ray jumped over her, arching gently before diving back down. Local men — Hector, and Paco with the lips — knocked on her palapa door at night. Actually there was no door, so they said, Knocka knocka, and she said, Who’s there? and waited for the joke. Hector wanted to dance. Paco sang about her “mangoes.” When she stopped answering, they left abalone shells and sea glass on her steps.
One day the family was having fresh pescadillas on the oilcloth-covered table at Rosie’s place with some surfers her son knew, and Peter was showing everyone his photos of the day.
“She looks like a nice woman. I’d like to get to know her,” Anna said.
People laughed. Her son put his hands on her shoulders and said softly, “You’re joking, right? That’s you.”
“Daddy, she knows,” her granddaughter said.
Anna laughed along with everybody and kept staring at the photo, hoping to see a likeness.
In the scorching afternoon, when everyone on the island slept or made love, Anna lay in her hammock, feeling the hardware of her life melt.
“Ma, what’s happening? Just spill,” her son says now on the phone.
“I don’t know what’s happening, Peter. If I knew what was happening, I’d hire someone to fix it.”
“Are you in trouble? Did you quit work? Ma, are you still working?”
He questions her: Does she have a plan? Does she have money?
“I have to get off,” she says. “Don’t worry, honey. This is just a temporary life thing.” Please let this be temporary. How could she tell her son that although she bathes, puts on clothes, laughs at Colbert, and has conversations with people, people don’t know. They don’t have a clue they’re talking to a bunch of scattered molecules trying to imitate a human being.
“You called. You want my advice.” Before she can answer, her son says, “OK, I’m saying forget Boulder. You’re done with Boulder. Move closer to us and watch your granddaughter grow up. The weather’s a steady sixty-five to seventy-five, you’re ten minutes from the ocean, the people are plainspoken.” He was always a good and generous kid. Why does that still surprise her?
The official line is that Anna is moving to Ventura, California, to be near her family. Unofficially she dropped her basket.
The realtor parks in front of an aqua-colored split-level built for function, not fun, indistinguishable from every other house on the block, with a gravel front yard and a giant saguaro cactus sticking up in the center of it. A durable home, but you couldn’t dress it up or play around with it. All the windows are shut tight and covered with curtains or blinds, as if it’s got something to hide. You could probably get away with murder in a house like this.
The realtor pushes the door open in a hopeless way.
It’s dark inside, but Anna can make out a 1970s stone wall with a fireplace and a gray kitchen floor that screams “crime scene.” There is no furniture, no smell of cookies, no other brokers’ cards in the entry. The realtor is turning on all the overheads — as if light could fix cheap — and calling out rooms as if they needed identification: living room, kitchen, basement door.
“The place looks dusty,” Anna says. “When’s the last time somebody lived here?”
“There were renters last year, I think.”
This is the fifth house she’s seen today. All have been close to their neighbors, with maybe a walkway between them. She could look inside the neighbors’ refrigerator if she wanted to, or into their bedroom. It’s the relaxed, Southern California way.
The realtor looks exhausted. It’s past 6 PM. “Fourth bedrooms are rare. The last owner built out from the master and made this into the baby’s room.” She takes off her glasses and lets them dangle from a silver chain. Both of them stare at the hideous cartoon-egg wallpaper. Poor baby.
“You’d be lucky to have a room like this, OK? Could be a guest-room-slash-office-slash-den.” She rubs her red eyes. Her spiel has run out.
The house shivers like the runt of the litter who knows he has to outperform his blue-eyed brothers. Anna is warming to it. She pats the egg wallpaper. “I’ll forgive you if you’ll forgive me,” she whispers.
There are gold-breasted birds on the branches of an apple tree outside the kitchen window. One seems to be watching her, moving his head whenever she moves. The black feathers around his eyes are drawn upward, Cleopatra style. The kitchen curtains ripple in the wind. Anna thinks of it as an exhalation of relief.
Her son buys the house, and she buys a book on how to care for it. Homelife: The Study and Art of Keeping House. It’s 784 pages long, lyrically, obsessively written by a woman who threw herself into the cocaine of detail. She plans on reading every word. The house needs her, and she won’t let it down.
Two chesty, put-upon guys carry in her furniture and boxes. The backs of their shirts say, SOLVE, with a phone number. Anna carries in a basil-lime-mandarin-scented candle, a six-pack of Dos Equis, the flowers the kids gave her, and the housekeeping tome. She arranges the pinkish-red lilies — embarrassing to look at with their open blooms and protruding stamens — on the mantel beside the book and the candle, grabs a beer, lies on her couch, and stares at the stone wall until she can make out the head of Rasputin, or the head of a Hasid, depending on the angle.
The gray-granite kitchen backsplash ends abruptly two inches above the stove, leaving the studs exposed. The fireplace is full of ashes from the previous tenant, whose magnets are still on the fridge. One is a picture of two bare-breasted women from the 1930s with blue butterflies superimposed over their nipples. Anna’s furniture doesn’t fill the place, making it seem immense. She keeps moving items around to cover the gaps, then forgets where she moved them.
Anna stretches out on the stone ledge, which is somehow welcoming, and starts to drift off. She should get up and go to the bedroom, but the stones are cool, comforting. They support her. With no pillow, no blanket, and no lorazepam, she sleeps.
Homelife, Chapter 36: Caring for Wooden Stairs
Paste waxes will make stairs slippery; oils will not nourish the wood or wear well.
Turns out wooden stairs require a brutal cleaning process with no shortcuts. Anna works from morning till dark. When her energy stalls, she listens to Tennessee Ernie Ford — “Some people say a man is made outta mud” — and Loretta Lynn and Ernest Tubb singing, “Who’s gonna take your garbage out / When I’ve packed my bags and gone.”
She runs a lavender bubble bath, wakes up to cold purple water, then crawls into her own bed and sleeps the sleep of the righteous.
Before she makes breakfast in the morning, Anna removes all the grimy blinds, opens the windows and the back door, and realizes the house isn’t just dusty, it’s filthy, and whatever isn’t filthy seems to require fixing. Peter handled everything from the inspection to the closing but said nothing to her about how much work the house needed.
Anna needs help, and she will get help, starting with the most essential. She makes an appointment with the first therapist who has the right answer to her question “Why should I hire you?”: Because I’m truthful and direct. The therapist is also unvarnished and quirky in a semiretired way and says fuck without apologizing. She’s wearing black boots and a blue fleece vest, and there’s an oversized pair of binoculars on her desk next to a rearing bronze horse with a clock in its belly.
“I’m a bird-watcher and an excellent psychological diagnostician,” she says. “Undergrad Harvard, PhD Berkeley, thirty-five years in the field. If you want tests to settle your mind, you can have neuros coming out your yin-yang.”
Anna wants tests. When the results come back, the therapist has a clipboard full of papers but never refers to them. She sits with one leg underneath her, and when she changes legs, her wooden office chair lists to one side. Anna tilts to match it.
“Well, you’re not nuts, and your brain hasn’t deteriorated yet. I’m guessing we’re going to end up with anxiety and situational depression.”
“Any relation to situational comedy?”
“Relocating when you’re older is tougher than people think. Any other major life changes?”
“I quit my job, stopped seeing friends. I had an accident five years ago. Money’s a worry.”
“Tell me about the accident.” The therapist grabs a legal pad and a Sharpie.
“It was black ice in Bangor, Maine. The police report said I was T-boned by a truck, but I don’t remember any of it.”
The therapist is flipping through pages of test results. “How long were you out?”
Anna is dying to pick up the binoculars and give them a try.
“Anna? Stay with me. When things start going deep, you get distracted.”
“I was out about fifteen minutes.”
“That’s long. Injuries?”
“A couple of broken ribs, stitches in my head. The nurses kept telling me I shouldn’t have walked away from the accident. I kept apologizing.”
“Body brace, nine months, neck to ribs. I took a few months off and then went back to work.”
“With the brace?”
“Eileen Fisher makes big dresses.”
“How long did you work?”
“Five more years, although the last six months were mostly horizontal, even in meetings.”
“Fucking five years? Did anyone talk to you about a brain injury?”
There is a Peet’s Coffee across the street from the therapist’s office. A treat after seeing the doctor.
“Eyes, Anna, eyes. Stay with me.”
“You think I have a brain injury? They ruled out a brain injury.”
“Who ruled out a brain injury?”
“The hospital in Maine.”
“Well, at least it’s only mild to moderate.” The therapist hands Anna a box of kleenex and pushes the wastebasket toward her. “And your essence is intact.”
“I want you to embrace life. Despite your impressive efforts to self-destruct, you’re not in terrible shape. We know what’s going on, and we will do something about it. I want you to rest, nap, sleep a lot. The brain heals in sleep. When you’re not sleeping, get out of the house! I don’t care where you go. Stand in a park and talk to dogs. You have a brain injury; you’re not dead.” The therapist looks sad. “Please. Try to embrace life.”
On the way home Anna buys another candle — ambergris and musk, like having sex in the belly of a whale. A brain injury. What a boon it is to have a name for her crazies. To see things as they are rather than how she remembers they were or wishes they could be. What if this is the secret to life? But already she misses the comfort of willful blindness.
The yellow bird outside the kitchen window, that puffy Pavarotti, fluffs his chest and lets out a few melodious cheeps. She lights the ambergris candle, spreads the duvet in front of the stone wall, and takes off her clothes. Sunlight pours down from the kitchen window, warming her.
Thinking about what to do with the depressing cartoon-egg wallpaper, Anna hammers off a tiny corner of drywall by the baseboard. The original brick is underneath. She’s knocking off large pieces when her granddaughter shows up for a sleepover wearing unicorn slippers with stuffed silver horns.
“Would you rather knock down a wall or toast marshmallows in the fireplace?” Anna asks.
“Knock a wall down, of course.” Tia puts on a pair of cat’s-eye glasses with no glass in them and her green monkey pajamas, flips her long red hair into a ballerina bun on top of her head, unpacks her fidget spinners, her mochis, her Stuffies, her washi tape, her Kind Bar for a midnight snack, her book, and her diary, and lines everything up on the desk like an old tourist.
“OK, marshmallows later. We have lots to do,” Anna says.
“I love it when you say that.”
“I know, Goobie, I know.”
“What do we do first?”
“I want to see if the bricks are nice enough to be exposed.”
“I need a magnifying glass.” Tia is all business. She’s on her belly, magnifying glass to brick. “More light, please.” Anna brings the gooseneck lamp over. “These bricks are red, and they look like bricks. I deem this to be my room.”
“Darlin’, this is my studio, but wait till you see the room I’m making for you. I’m getting you a bed that looks like a couch, but when you pull it—”
“A trundle bed. Oh, I love trundle beds, so my friends can come. Hey, when we finish tearing things apart, can me and you sleep here in the egg room?”
“In this mess?”
“It’s so beautiful. Let’s sleep on the eggshells.” After her granddaughter covers all the light switches and Anna’s wallet with washi tape, they watch a tween soap opera called High School Musical till Tia’s head starts nodding. Anna turns on the soft light of the Coleman lantern, spreads the king-sized duvet over the wreckage of sheetrock and wallpaper, and they lie on it together.
“Don’t tell Mommy and Daddy we slept in garbage,” Anna says. “They’ll shoot me.”
“I would never.” Her granddaughter smiles and throws her leg over Anna’s, and, just like that, she’s out.
Homelife, Chapter 41: Refinishing Floors
Forget it. Call the professionals.
Anna rips up a corner of the flat green rug in the egg room, and underneath is a wood floor. She calls SOLVE, and the same two grumpy guys who moved her in show up with a truckload of supplies and tools. She doesn’t look in the room until it’s finished: redbrick walls, honey-colored pine floors, white-painted windows, amber pendant light. Her desk looks at home. It is magnificent. She pulls a scrap of egg wallpaper from the drawer and tapes it above the desk.
Sunday-night dinner with her son’s family has become a weekly ritual, although they’ve been inviting her at least two times a week since she realized even the most thoughtful of mothers carries unintended weight when she lives near her kids. Anna learned: Go to them when invited, text on your way, leave before they want you to go, ask to use the bathroom. They laugh, but they like it.
Her granddaughter’s mouth is full of yellow curry from India Palace, the place that uses less grease, when she says, “Guess what? We bought a lot!”
Anna thinks she said they bought a lox.
“Way to put me on the spot,” her son says to his daughter.
Anna’s daughter-in-law says nothing. A Latina from a Mexican river town of seventy people, Violeta looks like a Mayan princess, with her cheekbones and her dimpled chin. She has a deep reservoir of peace and strength, smiles a lot, laughs more than she speaks. Violeta carries her plate into the kitchen. Nobody’s eating. Anna puts her spoon down.
“You bought a lox?”
“L-O-T,” Tia says, shaking her head at all she has to put up with.
Tia is drawing faces in the curry, adding rice hair with her fingers. Peter takes a long breath. “There was a sweet deal on some land in Telluride. My buddy Bernie sold it to me. You remember Bernie. Bernie still lives there. Anyway, I got it as an investment for Tia’s college.”
“What’re you going to do with it?” Anna knows her son. Never once has he saved his cake for later. If he has an empty lot, he’ll need to fill it. If he builds a house, he’ll need to move in, and he’ll take Goobie with him. And then what?
“Who says I have to do anything?” Peter stabs his fork into the saag paneer.
Homelife, Chapter 9: Rags, Cloths, and Towels
The most effective type of floor washing is done on hands and knees using a well-wrung, slightly damp cloth, not a sponge.
Anna gets down on all fours with a properly wrung-out cloth and goes at the dirt, using up stacks of rags and three old bath towels. She scrubs till her sweaty shirt clings to her skin and streaks of color begin to show in the vinyl tile. The gray-brown kitchen floor becomes a rich yellow flecked with gold: a 1960s dance floor, begging for the Watusi. The bird nods his head, as orioles do. She takes this as approval.
Peter comes over many times to jab at her with words that splat on her skin like bugs on a windshield. Today he has brought Tia for a buffer, and he starts right in: “I don’t think you love family. I think you love the idea of family,” he says.
Anna looks at Tia, who has gone to the place children go when adults become too much. “Goob? I’ve got all your Play-Doh. Want to throw out the dry stuff and take the good stuff home?”
“I’m taking it all to our egg room.”
Peter’s neck is getting red. “If we leave, maybe you’ll get out more. Get in the car and drive places: to Ojai for a sunset or Santa Barbara for the whales. Do something.”
“I’ve joined the Y,” she says. “I made a friend there.”
He pours himself a glass of limeade and drinks the whole thing in two dramatic gulps. “Where else in this world could you live? Remember I asked you that? Know what you said? ‘Nowhere.’ ”
It doesn’t sound like a real question. It sounds like a What if you could fly? question.
He says other parents aren’t a burden on their kids, and both of them are stunned by the cruelty of this.
Her back stiffens. Her hands need something to do. Anna grabs a bag of carrots and starts peeling them into the sink. “Are you cleaning the attic out for the renters?”
Peter looks alarmed. Maybe he hasn’t thought of the attic yet, or the renters, or what he’s doing. “There are no renters. Don’t get ahead of me. This isn’t—”
“Not on your radar? It’s on my radar and it’s screaming. You buy, you build, you move, you’re gone. Boom.” The sink is filled with strips of carrot skin. Carrots have been peeled.
“And you know this how? We don’t know, but you know what’s going to happen. Is that what you’re telling me?”
“Ask me how I’m doing,” Anna says to the therapist.
“How are you doing?”
Anna says she’s joined the Y and made a friend. A woman from the locker room asked her over for a two-hour lunch. It’s easier befriending someone in their underwear.
“So it’s been a great week. Good work.”
“I found out my son is leaving. They’re spending the summer in Telluride, to see if they can live there.” Oh, cry me a river. Like she’s never been on her own. She won the Entrepreneur of the Year award. She used to have dinner parties for twenty, didn’t she? Thirty. People loved them. People met and got married because of them.
“That sounds reasonable,” the therapist says. “We’re all trying to write our lives. Let him write his story. It’s not yours to edit, only yours to read.”
“What is this, therapy camp?”
“What are you most afraid of?”
“I don’t know.”
The therapist pulls out a gizmo with a dial and cords and black disks hanging off the ends.
“Hold this, one in each hand, and tell me when the pulsing feels comfortable. I’m doing some EMDR on you, to help you process your worries about future problems. Just go with it.”
Thump right. Thump left. This is her: Out of money with one friend and a brain injury. No weight of a child against her body. No one to say, Come over; we made chicken tikka masala, so she can show up late in a man’s shirt and plaid pajama bottoms. And when she forgets her debit-card PIN and a line of people are shifting their weight behind her and she runs out of the store, leaving her groceries with the alarmed bagger — who will laugh with her about it later if Peter’s not there? And then what? That’s what she’s most afraid of. And then what.
“Your son wants to be a good guy, but he feels like the bad guy, abandoning his mother with her broken wing. He feels guilty, so he’s going to project his guilt onto you, make you the bad guy. Go at him directly, and you’ll lose. He’s begging for a good fight to release his tension and prove he’s right.”
Anna lets the thumpers fall to the floor.
“Pretend he’s dead,” the therapist says.
“This is your best advice?”
“This is survival.”
The tilted therapist on the listing chair looks bogus, a stand-in for a real therapist, the sophisticated one who would scheme with Anna how to prevent her son from making, if not the biggest mistake of his life, certainly the biggest mistake of hers.
“Pretend he’s gone. Let go of him.”
The lopsided chair lurches suddenly to one side. The therapist gets up, retrieves a screwdriver from the metal locker with children-of-divorce toys in it, and tightens something under the seat. For the first time she and the chair are upright. Anna is upright. Posture, it’s amazing. The therapist is brilliant again. She has a gift. She has insight. Kill the son. It’s exciting. It’s biblical.
Anna decides it’s best not to skip a Sunday dinner; plus Peter has made his ribs. He’s herding her gently to the table. She knows his face and every muscle behind it. Something has been resolved.
“Hey, Ma. I’m glad you came. Why don’t you sit here. Do you want the end pieces?” The coveted rib end pieces — his favorite part. This is probably as close to Forgive me as she’ll get from him: sweet, hot, tangy, charred meat, the best she’s ever tasted.
“I’m sorry,” Anna says. “You get to write your own story.”
“Huh? Listen. We start renting the Ventura house in May when Tia gets out of school, and we’re heading to Telluride for the summer, like we said.” He has never told her any of this.
“You’ll be back in August? September?”
“You can come if you want. We’re renting a place with a whole apartment downstairs. You’d have a living room and a tub to yourself.” He spoons two crunchy golden potatoes onto her plate.
“The house is totally cool,” Tia says. “I have a room that’s teeny-weeny, but it looks like the inside of a cabin. We have pictures. Do you want to see? They’re in Daddy’s office. Can I show you?” Tia takes Anna’s hand.
Peter’s office is lined with boxes, bottles, and tiny samples of rum. The floor is covered with marketing posters: Rum Undisturbed, the tagline they came up with together. He runs his company mostly from home. Tia has grown up with two parents and sit-down dinners every night. She doesn’t hold worries too big for her body. She lines up photos of their rental on the floor: a southern-Colorado house with an endoskeleton of beams and trusses.
Under the photos is a blueprint of a three-story house, labeled “Telluride House,” with blue sticky notes in Peter’s handwriting.
Her granddaughter keeps talking, but the sound is blurry. The world spins. Only when Tia squeezes her hand does Anna come back to her body. Look at the child. She’s happy. They’re all happy. There is no other place to be but here.
“I’ll miss you, A.”
“I’ll miss you more, Goobie. Don’t forget me.”
“I would never.” She smiles.
Anna kisses the top of her granddaughter’s head. It smells like clay and sweat. The girl looks wise, knowing and unknowing at the same time. She is a rock, a tree.
Peter has been standing in the doorway. “My girls,” he says.
The day they leave is an imitation of an ordinary day. The camper, jammed with belongings and family members, rolls out of the driveway. They’re happy, Anna tells herself, but still the situation is a fresh knife in her. It is, her granddaughter would say, so “ginormous” that the mind whimpers and runs away like a coward. A blessed calm takes over, a kindly reptilian lie. It could be just a summer trip. It could. Everybody needs a trip. Sure. Anna sees the hippie across the street overwatering her succulents, sees Violeta’s baseball cap and powdered jelly doughnut, hears her son’s voice fading, sees her granddaughter hanging out the side window, waving until they disappear.
Homelife, Chapter 50: Stone
You need no special or unusual products to take good care of stone.
Stones are easy. Anna still sleeps on them now and then, as she did that first night. The book advises washing stone with a soft brush or cloth and mild detergent. Anna uses a cloth so she can wipe slowly around the curves and hollows. At first the water comes away black, like translucent india ink. She washes until her shoulders and arms throb and the water is barely gray. When the stones are dry, she rubs them with aluminum oxide for luster. Many have changed color entirely. The wall is a map of butterscotch, black raspberry, salt, and coffee-colored stones that beam at her until her heart rises up.