A mother is a slippery thing: she brings you into the world and then departs. All your mother has left for you are these rough-cut memories that both stingand shimmer when held too closely.
In one she sits next to you and asks you to be grateful that she is dead.
You clench your teeth and she tells you to spit out your anger.
It will lessen the pain, she says, embracing what hurts.
You don’t look into her eyes because they are entrances to all these unsaid feelings, regret and longing, and you are afraid of how her face might crease into pity for her weak, sad daughter.
Ada, do you know which came first, mother or egg?
You live in your mother’s, your grandmother’s, your great-grandmother’s house in Queens. It’s a Ghost House, filled with your mother’s archive. Old rotary phones from Atlanta line the living room wall. Stacks of magazines tower over the dining room table. Flowers wither in milk jugs. Your mother’s mind is this collection of ephemera from the near past that you haven’t touched since the funeral. She possessed a spatial muscle memory: take three steps west of 1930 rain boots and then jump into the swamps of Florida. It was a short-hand of things, people, places, and years you had mapped out in your mind to navigate childhood, and now, without her, meaning has “floated away as if she possessed a gravitational force that held together everything, even you.
Nothing has moved. The picture of Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk sitting in Mary Lou Williams’s Harlem apartment rests on a cupboard in the hallway. The trumpet mouthpiece owned by Freddie Hubbard in a silver bowl on the end table. A letter written by John Coltrane to his wife underneath a recorder full of pennies. You were never certain of the authenticity of any of the objects. All you had was her word, worth no more than paper money: a belief you had built your life around.
Your mother would play a record by Alice Coltrane, and you would lie on the carpet and move your arms and legs in the shape of an angel until you safely arrived in 1970. You would think of your grandmother Claudette Williams, a backup singer for a short-lived group called the Awakening, meeting your grandfather Luis Martinez, a quiet postman. According to your mother, Luis Martinez wore his father’s red zoot suit at the wedding. Once your mother slipped and described his suit as mustard, and when you corrected her, she looked at you suspiciously, her nose tightening as if something were burning. You tried to make the suit mustard in your mind but you couldn’t. All you could see was a smudge of red, the color solid and unforgiving. Often you have a sensation of a phantom memory, something that was true but is no longer there. It throbs just above your collarbone.
In college you were a hopeless student. You managed to make it out with a degree in machine learning with a specialization in natural language processing because of some intuitive understanding of syntax and algorithms. Your mother believed that meant you would be a polyglot, “fluent in an assortment of languages like Arabic, French, Khmer. But that first year of school, you barely managed to get out of bed to catch the train for class, and you might have slept through the years if you hadn’t lived at home with your mother, whose sudden enthusiasm for your formal education involved finger-lifting you from bed and concocting a protein-rich breakfast, as if she were trying to make up for all those mornings and rituals that she missed over the years.
For the foreign language requirement, you were late to enroll in an elective and ended up creating a “slot machine” program to choose among the three remaining courses. It didn’t matter to you. Did you really need to learn to communicate with people in another language when you were training an algorithm to comprehend all permutations of sounds?
On your thirty-seventh try, you hit the jackpot. Tamil Tamil Tamil!
After you looked it up, you found out it was a classical language of antiquity. All together you counted two-hundred-and-forty-seven letters. Some of them were shaped like fish. On the last day of registration, you signed up for the class and felt strangely like your mother, like you were reaching deep into a past that wasn’t really your own.
There were five students in your class, but you were the only one who continued over the years. You have no clear explanation for why you decided to stay, but your body followed a Newtonian impulse—an object in motion will stay in motion—until you stumbled on the manuscript.
Your aunt Zee calls you at home and asks you why you’re not at work. You tell her you took the day off and she seems nervous about your response, picturing you at home doing nothing by yourself. Her daughter, your cousin Rosalyn, lives with you now. She’s twenty-two and you’re twenty-six, which gives you some authority but not much. Your mother’s sudden death, four months ago, has cemented your aunt’s need to be on guard.
Just don’t make me worry, okay? your aunt says.
I’m earthbound, you say and wait until she sighs and says she loves you and so does Uncle Roy, even though he’s not talking anymore. You wait for her to hang up.
Space traveling was your aunt’s euphemism for what you were up to during your two-week disappearance after your mother’s passing. It was true, in a way, because you were traveling through space, drifting, letting your body go.
She doesn’t like to hear about that time, which, in her mind, occurred long ago, light-years away.
Before you started working at ML Consulting, you taught at a government-sponsored learning center focused on increasing machine learning literacy. You had a cross section of NYC students with various levels of attentiveness: Louis, in his forties, grinding his teeth methodically as he checked the time; eighteen-year-old Patricia, napping with one eye open because she was trying to make sure information sank into her subconscious; and Aisha, straight out of college, spending half the class on emergency calls.
It paid poorly, but you still can remember the speech you gave to each incoming class: How many of you take showers? Dry your hair? Brush your teeth? Buy food at the grocery? All this data is collected and stored. Your everyday living accumulates to your carbon score. We all know what it’s like to receive a fine for exceeding the limit. We are living in a more thoughtful and conscientious age. Don’t you want to be part of that? Helping the world become more functional? We are not individuals but behavior patterns. What if using a certain temperature of water makes your skin cells shrivel up and age more quickly? Because of the inordinate amount of data being collected, we can make all kinds of correlations. Don’t you want to be part of how that world is built?
It was meant to be inspirational, but you always mangled up the script from the handbook and punctuated it all with a sigh. Now, at MLC, you train AI models and have a decent wage. You hardly need to interact with people. After your abrupt absence, your boss, Petrov, didn’t question you, simply looked into your eyes very earnestly before assigning you double the work. He likes to remind the employees that MLC is an empathetic environment, not like one of those body shops, where companies hire a bunch of foreign programmers and squeeze all the life and sweat out of them with the promise of a residency sponsorship. Instead, you work in only a partially exploitive system, with health insurance benefits that ensure your body can continue working.
You are a pro MO$ coder. The dollar sign is your addition, because the language oozes money. In a parallel universe, you work in a finance company or at a start-up, leveraging your life. Your mother is still alive in that universe, but you never see her. You don’t have the time.
Books don’t interest you. Nothing in English registers. When your old Tamil professor reaches out, he sends you a line from the manuscript you first read years ago—There’s a way beyond mortality—and the line worms into you until you’re on your knees, searching under your bed for your copy, which you find in a shoebox.
The manuscript is untitled with no known author. Some might call it a collective memoir, not fully fact or fiction, about a group of female medical students, all of them under the age of twenty-one, not quite doctors or mystics. Written in the late 1990s, it was discovered only in 2001, when a young police officer in Rameswaram was rummaging through evidence boxes. Newspapers allude vaguely to the incident: “Medical College Suspends Classes Indefinitely.”
You once saw it referred to as a “secret minor classic.” It has never been translated. And you think maybe that is for the best. Some texts should remain elusive. The girls in the manuscript wouldn’t want to immigrate to English. But as you focus on the shape of each word, you feel this undefinable need to try.
When you go to bed, you think of this manuscript that no one will read, about a movement that no one really knows. It comforts you, all this accumulative uselessness. Your mother, a devout internationalist and anti-capitalist, who took pride even in a bird shitting on a car—nature striking back against modernity—would have appreciated it. She boycotted retail stores for years because she saw brand names and discounts as euphemisms for domination and poverty. In your closet, you still have your iconic sweater, which you wore between the ages of fourteen and seventeen. It’s mostly all yellow except for the last few inches, where your mother ran out of the yarn and had to go with teal. You were forced to wear it during the school year because you really had no other option. It was ugly and embarrassing and your mother’s shield, warding off those who lacked a true, far-reaching eye.
According to your mother’s wishes, she was cremated, her ashes tossed into the Ohio River, near where your great-grandmother was born. Silver minnows nibbled at the cloud.
Your mother’s youngest sibling, Bobby, placed a hand on your shoulder. They wore a patterned “oral dress your mother made for them years ago. It was too modest for them with its high collar, full sleeves, and long draping bodice, but it had Bobby’s favorite colors—a turquoise with streaks of umber—and they loved your mother.
My sister was churchly without going to church, they said to the small gathering. She always wanted to be a mother without having to be a wife. For her, memory was a solid thing, something that could be treasured and passed down.
Your mother wanted to topple governments, exchange gunfire, and remake the world. Brush shoulders in another century with Claudia Jones and Emma Tenayuca. Instead she kept an archive made of knockoffs and meaningless things she imbued with history. For twenty-eight years, she jumped between temp jobs, doing everything from testing the shelf life of spoiled food to administering databases. She was rich with ideas but too poor to go about buying anything of value. Somehow, she managed to leave on trips for weeks at a time, going on digs, as she called them. When she returned with stories of her travels, and freshly unearthed additions to the archive, you’d sit beside her, smiling, like you were not unmade by her absence. Together you’d watch a spider weave a web in the dark corners of the kitchen.
On Mother’s Day, while other children programmed cards with hearts and roses, you designed an algorithm of thirty-two baby spiders bursting out of their eggs and encircling your mother’s name. It looped over and over again. As you grew excited with each rebirth, your teacher came over to your station and placed one hand over her mouth. Oh child.
It’s strange that you can’t remember your mother’s reaction to the card, only the act of creation. The dampness of your hands. The breathless feel in the hollow of your throat, a brief space of suspension. You sometimes wonder if that’s how your mother felt when she held you for the very first time.
You drifted for two weeks after your mother’s passing. Followed the grassy edge of the highway or rode the train to some unknown city, where you slept among the birds. You carried with you a photograph of your mother and a lighter with the image of the Virgin Mary that supposedly belonged to Grace Lee Boggs. You told everyone you met your name was Grace Lee. An older man who seemed to drink more cream than coffee looked closely at your face. Aren’t you too dark to be Chinese? he said.
He frowned and you saw his gums were blackening. You smiled back. He smelled like used magazines, and part of you wouldn’t have minded if he sat beside you and told you a story. He beamed you some e-credit, and as you turned your head, you caught the few words he threw over his shoulder. Wretched girls.
You didn’t shower, and your skin turned mossy. Dirt is natural except on the human body. Let it seep into you and the flesh turns undesirable. What kind of girl doesn’t want to be desired?
You could sense people’s fear like heat as they passed you. They never got too close. Like you were a castle carrying a moat that no one dared to cross. A slight girl only five feet tall, you sat on a bench and everyone scurried. You scraped some pigeon shit as you stretched your legs, settled into the throne of your body. Flexing your right foot, you felt this sudden instinctive power, waiting to be harnessed.
The longest you have gone without looking at your reflection is two months. You wonder what beauty looked like thousands of years ago, in the murky surface of water, in the unfathomable reactions of other faces.
You live a few blocks away from the Museum of Sound. In one exhibit, called the Time Capsule, patrons are submerged in complete darkness, except for a small square of light by the placards. As you listen to each recording, your body disappears. You hear babies wailing as women coddle them in various languages. Pieces of conversations from disco clubs around Greenwich Village. Wax-cylinder records of nursery rhymes played on Edison’s phonograph. There is a booth of emotions, where you can hear people around the world express love, fear, hatred, embarrassment across the decades. Your favorite is a couple from the 1980s. From the placard, you know that one of them is dying, and this day they are discussing something ordinary like the cake they’re baking but continuously digress into stories about friends, long-winded memories of the years they lived in Paris. They never finish making the cake. The last words are spoken by the one who’s dying: What’s next?
And then there is silence for twenty seconds. In that brief stretch of time you feel yourself coming apart, stripped down to bones, grateful for the darkness.
At home, in the archive, you find a paper with a line in your own handwriting: If there is any substitute for love, it’s memory —Joseph Brodsky.
You read it like it’s a clue to your existence. What happens to a mother, if all the stories she told are untrue? What is the lifespan of a phantom memory?
For the past week, your mind has been on the manuscript, circling one dead girl. Mole on her right cheek. Necklace of scar tissue. A ripe-eared millet.
She appears in only a handful of pages near the end, but you can’t stop thinking of her. Overnight you feel her taking you over. Like you’re the ripe-eared millet with a mole on her right cheek. The teenager reaching out one last time. There’s a way beyond mortality.
To translate means to carry over, to move from one place to another. In your solitude you find yourself picking up each foreign word like a stone you might use to make a path back home. You write and rewrite until they are polished little monsters. We were eighteen the summer of the drought.
Instead of sleeping, you pace up and down your mind, and somewhere in your wandering, you find an empty room you hadn’t noticed. The door is jammed, but still you can hear them, in the silence, your mother, the girls, whispering, and she’s telling them, you, to listen, keep still, because she knows the secret to remembering.
From Meet Us by the Roaring Sea by Akil Kumarasamy. Used with permission of the publisher, Farrar Straus and Giroux. Coppyright 2022 by Akil Kumarasamy.