It’s our second day in New York City. We’re with Dennis Lomack. Mom is in St. Vincent’s, resting. She has recently done something very stupid and I’m the one who found her. Dennis has been taking us around town, trying to get our minds off of everything, trying to make up for the last decade.
Tonight, he brought Mae and me along on a date with a redhead to a dance recital. Mom would take us sometimes into New Orleans to see The Nutcracker, but this isn’t like that. We’re in the basement of a church. It’s cramped and damp. On stage a woman in a white sundress dances by herself. She looks like a feral cat. Her rib cage shows on the sides and down the front. She has thick dark hair that sways at her waist as she moves. The stage is covered in folding chairs and she dances with her eyes squeezed shut. She seems aware of nothing, banging her legs and arms and not even noticing. The chairs collapse and fall around her and she keeps going. She slows and cocks her head at an angle as if she’s listening for something, then makes little twitchy movements with her hands. Even from my seat, I can smell her dirty hair. It wafts with each spin.
She blurs and I realize I’m crying. I don’t know why.
That’s not true. I do. It’s because she reminds me so much of Mom. The way she dances, so desperate, but also so closed off. She isn’t dancing for us. She’s somewhere deep inside herself and the seats could be empty and still she’d dance like this.
Mae looks terrified. I squeeze her hand but she doesn’t notice. I don’t know Dennis well enough to guess what he’s feeling. Probably nothing. In the dark theater his face looks like it’s carved out of a rock. His date has fallen asleep on his shoulder.
Outside, Dennis pries the redhead off his neck, twirls out from under her, and puts her in a cab. It’s almost a dance too, the way he does it. His movements are so calculated. Obviously, he has a lot of practice getting rid of people. As the cab pulls away, the woman looks at us through the glass like she’s a sad golden retriever. Mae waves. I already don’t remember her name. Rachel? Rebecca? It doesn’t matter. I doubt we’ll ever see her again.
We walk back to Dennis’s apartment in silence. He walks between us, holding our elbows. It’s a long way, 30 or 40 blocks. The air is cold and most of the stores are closed with the metal grates down over the windows. The benches we pass have men lying on them. Some have sleeping bags, but others are just wrapped in newspapers. The ones who didn’t get a bench lie in doorways or on the ground. Dennis leads us around the men in silence. I’ve never seen so many homeless people before. At an intersection, a group of women walks by us, laughing and licking ice cream cones. They don’t even look at the people on the ground as they step over them.
“I’m sorry,” Dennis says. His words hang there. Mae and I glance at each other. I wish he’d be a little more specific about what it is exactly that he’s sorry about.
At the apartment, we sit at the kitchen table to have tea. When I think about the woman swaying on the stage, I start to cry again. Mae strokes my hair, rubs my temples with her cold fingers. Dennis hovers behind her. He helps her out of her coat, tries to help me with mine, but I shake him off. “What have we done?” I say. “How could we have left her?”
“Please calm down,” he says and hands me a napkin. I blow my nose. His face is stiff and unreadable but his hand is shaking as he pours water into our mugs and he has to steady it so he won’t spill. I look away at the box of teas Mae is holding. I don’t like that his hand is shaking. He has no right to lose it. I take a deep breath and focus on the box. It’s wooden with carvings of elephants and full of tea bags—ginger lemon, rooibos, açaí berry, shit I’ve never heard of. Mom only drinks coffee. I pick one that smells the least like grass. I bet the box was left here by a woman, just like the small sock we found balled up in the corner of our room.
Dennis wedges his chair between the table and the refrigerator. He buries his fingertips in his beard as he stares at us. I look away, but I see Mae staring back at him. He shakes my shoulder until soon I’m looking at him too. It’s strange because his eyes are the same eyes that I see in the mirror. I feel momentarily hypnotized, like I’m outside my body.
“Listen to me,” he says and his voice is wet. “I understand that you might feel, at first, that I’m a stranger. But I’m not a stranger. I am your father.” And then his rigid face collapses and he pulls us into his chest and holds us until the tea gets cold.
This is the kind of thing my mother liked to do: she’d pick a person and follow them for hours. Through the mall, to the garage, to their house. Once, we drove all night through the woods with our headlights off to somebody’s hunting cabin. Sometimes, if it was during the day, she would let Edie come too, though when Edie was there it would become something fun and toothless. A game where she and Edie would share a bag of Twizzlers in the front seat and speculate about the people we were following.
But when it was just Mom and me at night, the trees and swamp rushing past the windows in the dark, it was not a game at all. I was submerged in Mom’s reality. Sometimes she’d get out of the car and I’d have to go with her. Once we walked for a long time down an overgrown path to somebody’s deer stand. The air was thick and cold. The sound of crickets and tree frogs was deafening. I was 10, maybe 11, and I remember this unpleasant recurring feeling I’d get every few steps like I was waking up and waking up and waking up.
“I understand that you might feel, at first, that I’m a stranger. But I’m not a stranger. I am your father.”
The deer stand was a plywood shack on stilts. I don’t know if we stumbled on it, or if Mom had been leading us there deliberately. I followed her up the ladder because I was scared to stay on the ground alone. It was like a treehouse, but it smelled of mold and blood. Mom went through an entire book of matches, reading the headlines of old newspapers covering the floor. We got lost on the way back to the car, I was terrified that we would get shot at or chased by dogs. These things had happened too. It was light out by the time we got home, and then I had to go to school and pretend like nothing out of the ordinary had taken place. I’d have to try not to fall asleep in class or draw attention to myself in any way.
I don’t know how much Edie knew. She would say I was Mom’s favorite, but it’s not true. It was more that Mom saw me as an extension of herself, while Edie was free to be her own person. Edie would be out with her friends, riding her bike, sunbathing, sneaking into the movies, and I would be trapped upstairs in Mom’s bedroom, buried under blankets despite the summer heat, my grandmother’s fur coat draped over both of us. The coat was made from nutria—swamp rats—and Mom would make me lie under it with her for hours, sweating and itching, while she sucked the sleeves bald.
Yes, Mom dragged me with her to every terrible place. I needed to get as far from her as I could. She was consuming me. That day when she tried to hang herself from the rafter in the kitchen, I’d been lying on my bedroom floor. My mind was a radio tuned to her station and her misery paralyzed me. I must have known what she was doing, but I did nothing to stop her. It was Edie who saved Mom’s life.
When Dad appeared out of nowhere to rescue us, it felt like he’d been summoned by magic. He took us out of school—I was a freshman and Edie was a junior—and brought us back with him to New York City. It was our first time out of Louisiana. We didn’t know how long we’d be staying because everything was up in the air, but I understood that I was being given an opportunity to start over, and I wasn’t going to squander it.
Everything about Dad felt like déjà vu. I would see an object and feel inexplicably pulled towards it. A pair of brown leather shoes at the back of his closet, for example, worn soft and in need of resoling. I didn’t remember them exactly, but my body did. I’d shut the closet door and hold them in the dark, cradling them in my arms. I didn’t want Edie to know that I did these things, and it was hard to hide from her in such a small apartment.
I loved that apartment. It was like a tight, dusty womb. Edie was constantly sneezing because the dust was so hard to clean out of all the books. The shelves in the living room overflowed onto the floor and there were stacks of books everywhere, against all the walls, on top of the piano, under the kitchen table. Dad was a writer, so books found a way of multiplying in his apartment. He got new ones in the mail every day, mostly from young authors hoping for a blurb. A blurb from Dad went a long way. He was a cultural icon. Once he’d even been a clue on Jeopardy!.
Mom had been a writer too, a poet, though not nearly as well known. She read to us a lot. One of my earliest memories is sitting on the floor of the kitchen with Edie, watching as Mom towered above us with her eyes closed, swaying, stomping, intoning, her notebooks covering the counters. Sometimes she would send her work out to magazines and have Edie and me lick the envelopes for luck. She rarely got published. At some point she stopped writing, and then eventually she stopped reading. The books became props. She could spend entire days sitting in the breakfast nook, staring glassily at some volume of poems open in her lap, her oily hair staining the shoulders of her nightgown. She would stare and never turn the pages. Her fingers, disconnected from the rest of her body, would be tapping something out against each other.
The sound of traffic gets louder when I close my eyes. I bet this is what the ocean sounds like. Our bedroom is like a cabin on a cruise ship. It used to be Dennis’s study and it’s so tight that if you’re standing in the middle of the room you have to make sure not to “talk like an Italian,” as our French teacher would have said—or you’ll jam your fingers against the bunk bed or the dresser or the paper lantern.
Mae is lying next to me on the bottom bunk. We’re scared to leave each other’s side. All night we take turns drifting in and out of sleep.
“I don’t know how much Edie knew. She would say I was Mom’s favorite, but it’s not true. It was more that Mom saw me as an extension of herself, while Edie was free to be her own person.”
“It’s like we’re on a cruise ship,” I whisper to her, but she doesn’t open her eyes. She shakes her head and her thick dark hair falls over her face. She’s like a little furnace when she sleeps. Her neck gets wet and her hair sticks to it. Her hair is just like Mom’s. When she turns away from me to face the wall, I comb it with my fingers and pretend it’s Mom lying there with me. Sorry, Mom. I’m sorry. We’ve been here for almost a week and the doctors still aren’t saying anything. They tell Dennis that it’s too early to know for sure. When I call, they tell me that they aren’t authorized to discuss her condition with me. They treat me like a little kid, as if I haven’t been the one taking care of her all these years.
Dennis still hasn’t told us when we’re going back. I don’t mind a break, but I’m on student council and on the homecoming and dance committees and the longer we stay here the more likely all that shit is going to be
I’ve asked Dennis, will we be back on the 3rd? The 4th? But he just smiles like an asshole and tells me how happy he is to have me here. I don’t know how much more I can take of him following us around and making incessant observations about stupid shit. How we hold our spoons! How we drink our water! We are so similar to him! Oh, the wonder of genetics! I wouldn’t be surprised if right now it turned out he’s actually standing on the other side of our bedroom door, listening to us sleep, making notes on how similar our sleeping sounds are to his own. Maybe he can put
“Don’t you think it’s strange,” I whisper loudly, “that Dennis never took any interest in us for 12 years and now suddenly he can’t get enough?” If he’s on the other side of the door, I hope he hears me.
Mae doesn’t open her eyes but I can tell she’s awake. Anyway, I already know what she thinks. She doesn’t think it’s strange at all. When I brought it up before she defended him. She was only two when he left, so what does she know. I was four. I actually remember it. I remember missing him, waiting for him by the front window every day like a dog. He never called, not on birthdays or Christmas. He never sent letters or postcards. He’s this famous writer or whatever and I have no idea what his handwriting even looks like. And then there’s also what Mom told us. Even when we were little she’d talk very openly with us, since we were all she had. She’d tell us how he’d taken advantage of her, of her youth, and how he’d been jealous and rageful, and slept with all her friends, not even because he wanted to, or was particularly attracted to any of them, but because he didn’t want her to have friends. And she didn’t have friends, not really. She had Doreen and she had us and we hadn’t been enough.
“This isn’t gonna last,” I whisper. I don’t want her to get her hopes up only to have them crushed. “As soon as we go back home we’ll never hear from him again.”
Mae is so bad at pretending to be asleep. She holds her breath, that’s what gives her away. I don’t say anything else and soon the sound of traffic fills the room until it feels like I’m floating on it. I drift off. I’m back home, in my own room. Mom is fine. I hear her in the shower, singing. See, she’s fine. I knew she’d be fine. Her singing turns shrill. Sirens wake me up.
Mae is by the window. The lights from an ambulance seven stories below are making her face a blue then red mask.
“Mae,” I whisper, but she doesn’t budge. She goes into trances sometimes, that’s why the kids at school called her Spooks.
“Mae,” I say again, and put my hands on her shoulders. We both watch someone on the street below get strapped into a stretcher.
There was a torrential rainstorm the day I found Mom in the kitchen. The EMTs and firemen left puddles all over the carpet when they carried her out. It was like God made me and Markus get into a fight, so that I’d come home early from his lake house and find her. Mae says that she doesn’t believe in God, but how else would you explain my being there in time? Just five minutes later and she would have died. I can’t imagine her dead. It’s like an eclipse, where if you look directly at it you’d go blind.
She hadn’t really wanted to die. I know this for a fact. You know how I know? Because she’d put the hot water on and set the percolator up to make coffee. The whole wall was wet with condensation and the kettle was still whistling when I found her. I don’t know how Mae hadn’t heard anything. She must’ve been in one of her trances.
I walk Mae back to the bottom bunk and tuck her in. She reaches over and strokes my face.
“Don’t cry,” she says and closes her eyes.
I hadn’t realized I was crying. Tears have been leaking out of me since we got here, like my face is incontinent. “I’m not,” I say and wipe them with her hair.
“Don’t you wish it could go back to how it was?” I ask. Before this happened, before Mom got depressed. She wasn’t always sad. Sometimes she was happier than anybody I’ve ever seen. She would laugh, doubled over, unable to stop, and we would laugh too, even if we didn’t get what was so funny. And then there were other times, when she wasn’t happy or angry or sad. When she was just Mom, when she would take us to the park or to the parades, and when she’d stay up late, sewing us elaborate Mardi Gras costumes.
Mae doesn’t answer me, turns to face the wall. Finally, when I’m almost asleep I hear her say: “Sometimes it feels like you and I grew up in different houses.”
The first couple of weeks Dad didn’t let us out of his sight. He’d take us on epic walks, trying to cram in as much as he could to make up for lost time. We covered hundreds of blocks on foot. He said that when he moved back to New York he missed us so much that it felt like his internal organs were crawling with fire ants and walking was what brought him back to sanity.
It wouldn’t have occurred to us to walk in Metairie. There was nowhere to go and you couldn’t get very far without eventually ending up where you started or hitting the interstate. There were the terrifying night walks through swamps and woods with Mom, but that was its own thing. In New York, we walked like pilgrims and when our shoes wore down, Dad bought us fancy sneakers, designed to mimic the strut of a Maasai warrior. We’d wear them as we walked from the Cloisters to the southernmost tip of Battery Park, stepping around junkies nodding out on the sidewalks of the Lower East Side, sampling dumplings in Chinatown and pizza in Little Italy, fingering the bolts of fabric in the Fashion District and buying bouquets in the Flower District that wilted by the time we got home.
We’d walk through neighborhoods right as schools were getting out. Girls would pour into the street, wearing similar uniforms to what we had at St. Ursula’s—gray-and-green plaid skirts and button-down white shirts—though, of course, these girls made them look a lot more sophisticated. We’d see them standing in long lines outside bakeries in Greenwich Village, rummaging around in their big, fancy purses.
Dad would try to steer us away from those girls because seeing them would inevitably put Edie in a foul mood.
“You’ve basically kidnapped us!” she would scream at him, and some of the girls would turn and watch us uncertainly, not knowing whether to take her accusation seriously. Once she took off her new sneakers and threw them at him. Dad looked so befuddled and surprised that it only made Edie angrier.
“When are we going home?” she screamed, and the only way to calm her was to invoke the doctors and Mom’s health. Then she begrudgingly settled down, and after several blocks put her shoes back on.
My favorite was when Dad would take us on ghost tours of all the places from his childhood that had been effaced, places where he had lived and gone to the movies and drank malts and played pinball. I liked seeing another layer of the city under the immediately visible one. Metairie was a static swamp. Nothing there felt like it could ever change.
One time he took us to Morningside Park to look at the caves he’d camped in to protest attempts to segregate the park. Columbia had wanted to build a gym there with two separate entrances for “Whites” and “Coloreds.” Anytime he talked about the Civil Rights Movement, Edie would forget she was supposed to be angry and would listen to him with her mouth hanging open.
From The Deeper The Water The Uglier The Fish. Used with permission of Two Dollar Radio. Copyright © 2018 by Katya Apekina.