On my seventeenth birthday, my mother parked her pickup a few yards from the trailhead and we slid out, a pair of lithe, dark-haired women in hiking shoes and tank tops. She had fairer skin than I; my olive complexion was influenced by my father’s Spanish blood and the high August sun, and watered down by a splash of Scandinavia, courtesy of my mother. I watched her with quiet fascination as she shut the driver’s door and launched her weight into the bed of the truck, rifling through the ragtag pile of canvases and easels and whatever the hell else she stored back there between trips from our condo in Long Beach to her studio in the attic above an antique shop on the coast. She was a social worker by day and tended bar by night, both jobs stilts upon which she propped a budding art career that still cost more than it produced. I put down as much as I could on our rent by averaging 30 hours a week at Mazza, a mid-scale Mediterranean Restaurant run by a nice man who let me take home scraps from the kitchen every night, saving us a shitload on lunch and dinner. It was for this reason that I ignored the occasional joke about spending a long weekend together at his cabin up in Big Sur, which he sometimes proposed after a late close – he’d cradle a bottle of Stoli at the bar while I quickly counted my tips and slipped out, one hand grazing the bottle of pepper spray in the pocket of my purse. Breakfast was usually some kind of blended berry concoction, and on Friday nights we pooled our resources to buy three cheap bottles of wine for the weekend and following week.
“You still with me, kid?” My mom asked from the truck bed, smiling quizzically at me. “Aren’t I always?” I replied, pushing my sunglasses up onto my head. “Here, take a canvas,” she instructed, handing me not one but two canvases and three bottles of paint. She lowered herself to the ground with a backpack crammed with four more bottles of paint, an array of brushes, and a Nikon an old boyfriend had given her the year before. My backpack carried water for the two of us, water for the brushes, a small plastic bowl, snacks, and a water bottle labeled “snacks” which was, of course, full of whisky.
With a backpack and 40x24 canvas each (usually $99, but marked down to $44.99 at a local art supply store), we hiked the six miles up the ocean front trail, stopping for the occasional photo op and refuel. It took four hours. When we reached the top, we wedged our canvasses against some boulders, set up our workstation, opened the whisky, and got down to business. I was not a painter. Not by any stretch of the imagination. I couldn’t really draw and I couldn’t really paint, but I enjoyed blending hues into swirls and fades that eventually looked like some kind of pretty color palette. Usually cool colors. My mother could paint landscapes and faces and bodies and guttural, disturbed images, while I painted “sunsets” and “ocean” and “sky”. Most of the time, I tried to paint outer space, which was really just purples and blues and blacks with shocks of white, yellow and greens poking through. Sometimes I painted nebulas. I was just there for the company.
“Jaimey taking you somewhere tonight?” She mused, eyebrow cocked and lips curved upward in a smirk. I didn’t flinch. “I think we’re going to cook and watch something.” “Our place or his?” “Ours.” “Should I sleep at Katie’s?” She asked breezily. “Mom.” “What!” Katie was my mother’s closest friend, a fellow single mother who understood the unique alienation of a single woman who “threatened” young married couples. “You seem to be spending more time together lately.” “Mm.” I squinted at my canvas, sucking one cheek in and biting down gently as my brush corrected an unfortunate patch of brown I hadn’t meant to create. “He dating anybody?” “Nope.” “Hmmm. And you?” I shot her a meaningful look. She waited patiently. “You know I’m not.” She passed me the bottle of whisky, a taste I’d come to tolerate after loathing it for two years. It was her favorite, and I wanted to meet her there. “Wouldn’t kill you to try the guy out. You seem to like spending time with him.” “MOther.” “What!” “Don’t think for one minute that I don’t know what ‘try the guy out’ means.” She threw her head back and laughed, delighted by the opportunity to make me blush. The sun rolled over our shoulders and down our backs, and by the time we clambered into the truck, cheeks flushed from sun and liquor, it was kissing the horizon. We hurried home and I jumped into the shower, trading my sweaty shorts for a simple summer dress that required no bra (godsend) and was a pretty green. “Nice dress,” my mother intoned smugly, as she breezed past me and disappeared out the door. I rolled my eyes. I could hear the tinkle of her laughter and she climbed back into her truck, driving off to give me whatever privacy she thought (and probably hoped) I wanted.
It was the same laughter I’d hear four months later in her sterile hospital room, where she lingered in high spirits for another few weeks before the cancer reduced her to someone who was not my cheeky, full-of-life mother, but someone who slept and couldn’t eat and begged for morphine like a dog. It was the same laughter I’d hear when my father and older brother flew in from their New York penthouse and greeted her with a display of affection that revealed a chord between my parents that could never be broken. That despite all of the damage they’d done to each other, they still loved each other very much. I watched as my father realized that she was going to die, that she would die this year, and I watched as my mother registered that he was realizing it. I hated him for making her feel it. I prepared myself to hate my idiot brother for never saying the right thing, but instead I wrapped my arms around him in the hall and cried into his chest with such shuddering emotion that he had to dry clean his shirt. I stayed by her side for two months, leaving only to pick up occasional shifts only so I’d be able to return to my job when this was over. I was sick with myself for even thinking about ‘over’, about preparing for an ‘over’. I was supposed to be praying and holding out hope and calling for miracles. Instead, I was calculating the debt the medical bills were accumulating and pitching them against my wage and trying to brainstorm what I was going to do when ‘over’ came. Leave school, definitely. Support myself. Pick up another job. These pragmatic thoughts were much easier to swallow than the existential ones – the wondering what my mother would become when she died, where she would be and if she could find me, if I could find her, and who I would be once she did. I had always modeled myself after her, even when I hadn’t meant to – when she was gone, I’d -. Well, I just didn’t know.
On one of the days near the end, a cluster of days in which she rarely recognized me, I wandered to the cafeteria to get myself a coffee and ended up at my father’s side. Most of the time, I slid past him and uttered no more than a few words when it was required of me. “B, your phone’s vibrating,” he offered gently, always addressing me with an air of warmth and apology. “I’ll get it later,” my reply was less warm, with no apology. He smiled and nodded. I didn’t understand why he couldn’t leave us alone in my mother’s death as he had in her life. The rapid switch from bi-monthly phone calls to this very real presence felt like fraud to me. I knew on some level that he was here for my mother and not for me, but she didn’t even know it anymore. And she wouldn’t know it if he fucked off back to New York and returned to normal. I glanced at my phone as he walked away. Three missed calls from Jaimey this morning. I just didn’t know how to explain.
My mother’s death was pathetic and slow and sad, with no final words of love or encouragement. She didn’t send me off with any feminine wisdom, nor did she look me in the eye and smile like she knew what was happening and had accepted it. In fact, her last words were, “I am- ohh.”
I am oh, I am oh, I am oh, I thought as I signed the paperwork reserved for the lucky next-of-kin to the deceased. I am oh, I am oh, I am oh, I thought, as I gathered her hospital suitcase and packed it into the pickup. I am oh, I am oh, I am oh, I thought as I made cremation arrangements, roiling in the wake of a life reduced to I am oh.
On the evening of my seventeenth birthday, the evening of the hike, I had set up a table in our back yard, soothed by the sound of the ocean as Jaimey pattered away in the kitchen. He was sexy and sweet and goofy and in every way my best friend, save my mother. We ate (he was a fucking good cook) and took a walk (my request) and returned and watched a movie on our big couch and fooled around until the sun came up and we fell asleep. In the morning, I woke to three voicemails from my mother. One said that she’d be by after work, a second that she wasn’t going to work, and a third that she was taking herself to the hospital to get some stomach pain checked out, which she hastily informed me might be appendicitis but that I shouldn’t worry. It was stomach cancer.
When my cell rang a fourth time in the hospital cafeteria, I thought of that night. Of Jaimey’s fingertips hovering over my skin, tracing the line of my collarbone, the border of my breasts through the thin fabric of my dress. His lips touching the hollow of my throat. He’d hardly touched me, but I was so wet I couldn’t stand it. I felt dirty for revisiting that experience in the hospital with my mother dying upstairs. Dirty for the rush of blood that pooled between my legs and resulted in a subtle throbbing sensation. That afternoon, she was dead. I howled when it happened, pressing my face into her wrist. Her body was warm, but still and waxen. She was herself and she very clearly wasn’t. And I had no faith about where she’d gone. I wondered if it was nowhere; if she’d simply ceased to exist, and it was my job to remember her fiercely and with a vengeance so she never, ever really died.
I dropped out of school and picked up another job. The car was paid off and she’d left the house to me, but I still had a mountain of hospital debt and the shock of being immediately financially independent. I hiked that trail every single morning before work, ignoring the fact that I’d become bored with the route, looking for signs of her everywhere. Looking for trash she might’ve dropped (which was stupid, she never littered). Looking for locks of her hair that could’ve fallen. Looking for something she could’ve lost. And all the while, I am oh, I am oh, I am oh playing in my head.
After the funeral, my father handed me a check for five thousand dollars. He told me the medical bills were taken care of, as well as the funeral expenses, and this was for me. To start me out. And if I ever wanted to come to New York, I had a home. My face burned a deep red and I stared back at him, torn between a feeling of immense relief and fury. I turned from him and dropped the check casually into the trash before heading outside. After he left I looped back around and fetched it out, too poor and afraid to fuck with pride. I rushed to the bank and deposited it before he could cancel the check. He never mentioned it. That softened me a little.