by Diane Lefer
My mother has no impulse control. It’s not Alzheimers or any other form of dementia. It’s more that now she’s a wealthy widow, after years of self-denial, she can do what she pleases, and why not? I used to be the volatile one but that’s to be expected when you’re a teenager, especially during an era of rebellion, the counterculture, I mean the Sixties. That was when my life took a turn.As I said, it was the Sixties so on spring break I was hitchhiking once again to visit my out-of-state boyfriend. On these trips I never carried ID, the idea being if I got busted I could give a false name and address and they wouldn’t be able to call my parents and it wouldn’t go on my record. The couple who found me in a ditch on the side of the road took me to the ER and if you could track them down today they could tell you more about it than I can because I was unconscious.I was in pretty bad shape but lucky for me had and still have no memory of what had been done to me. I did know I had no way of paying a hospital bill so it was good no one knew who I was or my next of kin and once I was cleared for discharge, with nowhere else to go, Juniper and Donovan took me home. It was the Sixties and that’s what people did and those are the sorts of names we gave ourselves. They knew nothing about me and I wasn’t telling. I mean I was a scholarship student at a fancy university while Juniper was a cashier at the market, Donovan pumped gas back in the day before gas stations became self-service. I’m not sure they’d even graduated high school. In a small town in Western Pennsylvania, I figured they hadn’t had many options. Later when my mother asked, “They’re not even married, are they?” and “Where are their parents?”, the truth was I didn’t know.What mattered was they took care of me. They settled me into the place they shared with friends and others who came and went. The more or less permanent other tenants were Mariah who danced topless and made fun of the stupid men who paid good money to stare at her boobs and her boyfriend who dealt a little weed while delivering for Chicken Delite. The place was what they could afford. The stairs were in such bad shape no one used the second floor. Downstairs, where we lived, Juniper and Donovan’s bedroom had no door, just a tie-dyed sheet hung for privacy and they hadn’t even bothered with that much on the bathroom. Paisley shirts and ponchos and blue jeans hung from nails by the front door, other clothes lay around with everyone’s boots and sandals on the floor. They weren’t into underwear. In the dark, the blacklight posters lit up Day-Glo bright. Daytime, everything inside was gray. Though it was late Spring, the windows were still covered with plastic to keep out the cold and with everything closed in, you never got away from the smell of pot and the gasoline fumes from Donovan’s hair and skin and clothes. Lots of sweat and fluids and secretions and my own stink. Mariah’s hash brownies smelled great as they baked but my jaw was wired and I had to go without. Sometimes someone would hold a joint to my lips, the buzz was nice but it wasn’t chocolate. Anyway, I was bound for moving on, like all the songs said in those days.But I stayed. The police told me to while they investigated—or claimed to. Mostly they acted like I’d been asking for it. While it was their job to find the attackers, they let me know that I was the one at fault. Their efforts seemed pointless. I couldn’t identify a perpetrator and I really did not want to sit in a courtroom and hear all the details I was glad not to know. Of course, I was still too messed up to go anywhere and though it was clear the cops didn’t like me, I think they liked stopping by to check on me just because Juniper and Donovan lived in a clothing-optional house. You didn’t have to be in college to have psychedelic blacklight posters and take off all your clothes.I’d also given up on clothing. The pressure of even a light sheet over my body was unbearable and the skin around my stoma so irritated it drove me crazy. I was well enough to get up and move around by then but I felt drained of energy. I was more comfortable on my mattress on the floor. I let Juniper turn me to prevent bedsores and feed me and clean me. It felt like a vacation to be cared for that way. I relaxed when Juniper knelt by my side. Her breast often slammed into my arm or cheek and when that happened it didn’t hurt at all. All I wore was—like James Bond’s woman in From Russia with Love—a black velvet ribbon around my throat. My ribbon held a ballpoint pen. With my jaw wired, I had to write on a pad to communicate and the ribbon kept the pen within reach. Though I had no memory of it, I was told I’d been raped, and given the nature of my injuries, I could imagine. Everyone said, “You must be glad to be alive”, but I didn’t really feel alive and “glad” wriggled past so I couldn’t catch the meaning. Being naked around other people should have made me self-conscious. Instead, it helped a lot. My injuries included a ruptured bowel and because not a single housemate was uncomfortable with my colostomy bag, their ease with my damaged body helped me accept it, too.I felt no shame—until my mother arrived, Mom with her Bronx accent, in her white ankle socks and highwater slacks, the hair she cut and colored herself in front of the bathroom mirror. You have to understand that people like me–like Juniper and Donovan–looked down on the consumerist sheep who had to have the right clothes, but we were even more merciless towards those who wore the wrong ones.In the end, I had to give my real name and address and the police went ahead and called my parents. The only person I myself had chosen to contact was the out-of-state boyfriend who never showed or even phoned. “No one will ever love you like your family,” is what my mother said the day she arrived to find me in the house full of naked strangers. She was an embarrassment and I was tense throughout her visit, bracing myself against the moment when she would criticize or insult the very people who had welcomed her and saved me. She refused the offer of my hosts’ own bed and instead, to my horror, chose to share my mattress. Then it was her body, not Juniper’s, that brushed against me and made me recoil whenever she shifted or rolled over. “She’s a good sport,” said Juniper. Little did she know.My mother was someone who could whine, blame, criticize, apologize, and accuse all in the same breath. Even when she didn’t speak, she emanated so much self-pity, frustration, suffering, and rage, you just wanted to slap her. Day or night she lay muttering beside me. “Their mattress. No thank you. I can just imagine the stains!” She vented her scorn. “The human body? A thing of beauty? Ha! In a painting, maybe, or a Greek statue frozen in marble. Nudes, maybe by French painters. That’s beautiful, not the real living thing with its hair and appendages, and the smells, my God, and the acne-scarred bottoms, the gooseflesh and protuberances and all that swaying and hanging and I’d appreciate it if the boys could just stop all that bobbing about, for godsake…” Her voice got through in spite of the constant music and pounding bass and the way in this household even a quiet song like “Mellow Yellow” played at full volume. “I’m not offended, scandalized, it’s not about sex, after all, nothing in the world could kill desire faster than all that bobbing. If I’d seen your father naked before we got married, I swear you would never have been born.” Remember, my jaw was wired so I couldn’t interrupt. On she went: “…that woman! with her tampon string hanging out! Of course mensuration”—she never pronounced it right. “It’s normal, the ordinary monthly curse, completely normal, I know that so don’t give me that look, but what about privacy! Some things are private! They should be kept private!”I’d been silenced and immobilized once before—the dentist who, when my mouth was full of instruments and Novocain made fun of women’s lib and went into a misogynistic rant. I could have squirmed. I could have used my body to fight back. Instead I blocked out his voice, heard only the sound of the drill, that memory triggered by Juniper at the blender making my nutritious meals—eggs complete with their shells, bananas and oranges with their peel, all diluted with enough milk and water so I could suck it up through the glass straw, so nauseating I used to grasp Donovan’s wire clippers in case Juniper’s concoction made me vomit and I’d have to free my jaw to keep from choking. I never went back to that dentist, but my mother was mine for life.The blacklight posters made her dizzy. “That’s Jimi Hendrix, isn’t it? But what on earth is that? And that woman in the kitchen with all those glass jars, all that sifting and straining and draining and rinsing. What is she doing?” My mother! Why would any normal person be so creeped out by Mariah’s bean sprouts?I thought my father stayed home because he was disgusted with me or else couldn’t get off work. I didn’t know he’d had a massive heart attack. When my mother came to find me, she was already a first-time widow. She never blamed me. She never said it happened when he heard what had happened to me. Kindness? Maybe.What she did say was quite enough. “My God, those awful beards! Why do boys want to wear pubic hair on their faces? They’re all hippies now, even the white trash.” How could she? No human being is trash, especially not these people, but I couldn’t speak or reach my writing pad. I took the pen off its ribbon, wrote SHUT UP! on the palm of my hand and shoved it in front of her face. Sometimes I hated her. But when I left, I left with my mother.It was the Sixties so, back in the dorm when we got bored, we’d say, “Let’s go to San Francisco and get our shit together.” It was a cliché, a joke, but the familiar words in my head pointed me to California.“You’re not going to hitchhike,” said my mother. “You’re in no condition to take the bus.” “Condition” was how she referred to my bag. The ER had saved my life, but I didn’t have insurance. Getting the colostomy reversed, that was elective. Without money, it had to wait.She drove us to the nearest airport, Cleveland Hopkins. It was only then, on the way, that she told me my father was dead. The service couldn’t wait for me, she said. He was already buried. I cried a little bit at the ticket counter as she bought my ticket and then left to catch her own flight back east. She didn’t even try to convince me to return “home”.I cashed in the ticket, figured I’d fly half-price student standby and pocket the difference. My bag hung under my clothes. See, my shit’s already together, I told myself, and instead of San Francisco, I decided to go someplace warm and chose LA.I signed up with a temp agency, found a cheap room in Venice which was not then the gentrified tech hub it is now. As soon as she got my father’s life insurance, Mom used every penny on my surgery. During the two months I was healing and learning to eat and digest and—to be blunt about it—to shit again, she phoned every day. She never let up: “No more stoma. No more bag. If you’re not going back to college, get yourself a husband!” She said, “You can live a normal life now.”But I wasn’t normal. Along with memory, I lost something else at that time, the feelingness of things. Even the death of my father registered in a muted way, like distant news. Was it the head injury? I can’t say as I don’t know. But the edge came off my emotions. Feelings—whether good or bad—I don’t know how else to describe it except to say they were blunted. I ended up being an even tempered and reasonable human being. What I do know for sure is, the unexpected—good or bad—can happen at any time. My mother’s generosity to me didn’t change my life, but it did change hers. Having spent all her money, she needed a job. Mom went to work in the Vydec room of a Manhattan law firm, Vydec being an early type of word processor, and that’s where she met the multi-millionaire she later married. Harry would come into the office whining about how he was persecuted by the FDA and the SEC. His lawyer would try to calm him and jolly him along. Only my mother was as bitter and paranoid, as scornful of the government as he was. Her sour demeanor won his heart. At least that’s how I explain it. It’s not like her life was suddenly easy. Harry was diagnosed with cancer. She nursed him through those awful years, the whole time blaming the government, it was the aggravation that did it, she insisted, that killed him. When he died, the case against him fell apart, leaving his estate intact for my mother and Harry’s grown children. There was plenty to go around and my mother became a very wealthy widow. For the first time in her life, Mom wasn’t living with a man who controlled everything about her but her mouth. Her life changed as radically as if she’d been struck by lightning, but I believe she remained the same judgmental woman she’d always been. The only difference was, she was happy.By then I was a crew member working the cash register at Trader Joe’s. Mom harangued me: “There’s a whole world out there. Do something! Make something of yourself!” As I rang up sales, I often thought of Juniper. Her work as a cashier had required more expertise. She had to ring up actual prices. I just scanned and let the customer pay with plastic. If I had to make change, the screen told me to. “It’s never too late to change your life!” said my mother. “I did it! You can too!” But I liked my life as it was. “You think you can just—what do you call it—go with the flow?” I held the phone away from my ear to muffle her carping and criticizing. When I drifted into marriage, she demanded, “Why on earth are you marrying him?” Then she demanded to know why I left him.“He isn’t very nice.” She said, “You are?”If I am ashamed of anything it’s how I treated Juniper and Donovan. I accepted what they gave me and as soon as I could, I moved on. For several years they sent Christmas cards addressed to me at my mother’s. I was amused—how conventional! And I never wrote back.Fifty years later, my mother’s moved out to Southern California, and she’s bought a condo in South Pasadena and she’s still trying to fix me. No, I don’t want to live with her. I’ve got my rent-controlled apartment. I get my Social Security. I can take care of myself. I still value my independence though I’ve forgotten about freedom. That’s when I get the call from the Tesla service center to come pick up her new car which I realize must be a gift for me. My mother, a lifelong New Yorker till now, never learned to drive. I’m not all that comfortable behind the wheel either. I hardly use my own car these days. Public transportation in LA has gotten better and that’s what I prefer. That, and my feet. But I pick up this spotless Tesla still sporting dealership tags and I wonder how much value it will lose by the time we return it or sell it tomorrow.“It’s not for you,” she says. “It’s mine.”My mother has been in LA all of four months and she’s already solicited by every charity and nonprofit organization in town. She supports them all, and why not? She’s got the money and never had to work for it. So she tells me there’s a benefit for the latest town devastated by fire. Tickets are $500 but only $300 if you show up in an electric car.“You bought a $75,000 car to save $200?”“Four hundred,” she says. “I got a ticket for you too.”No no no. I tell her I’m not going. “You know I hate these things. I don’t know how to talk to those people.”“You’ll talk to me,” she says. “I can talk to you anytime without getting dressed up.”“I’d give you my ticket,” she says, “if you had anyone else to go with.” When she talks like this, it would hurt if I cared. “You might meet someone,” she says. “I’m too old for all that.”“Sixty-six. Big deal,” she says.“Sixty-seven. And I’m not interested.”“You’re not dead yet,” she says. “Don’t let life pass you by.”But for me, that’s the point. My life isn’t miserable or even bad. What it is, is like a snake. Best to step back and let it pass.I pick her up Saturday night and drive her—that silent engine doesn’t even purr—to the coast. It’s for a good cause. They are all good causes. By now, the fire victims we are supporting are no longer the latest, and we listen to warnings about sea level rise and what it means for our coastline not to mention this Five-Star hotel and there are the usual speeches and presentation of awards blah blah blah, ocean views and mostly adequate food and well-dressed strangers at our table I have to talk or listen to.The saving grace is that Mom, for all her mindless enthusiasm, is 89 years old and can’t stay awake, so I make our escape even before dessert. The drive lulls her to sleep. There’s not much traffic and by the time I’m heading north on the 110, I realize this is maybe the most peaceful time I’ve ever spent with my mother.Till she wakes up screaming, “Ouch! I’ve been bitten. My God, it’s crawled up my dress! Pull over, stop the car!” I take a sharp turn onto the exit ramp, the Tesla handles perfectly and I pull over and before I can stop her, my mother is in the street. “Leave the headlights on so I can see!” “Mom, keep your clothes on.” “Get it off me! Find it! Get it off me!”Lights start going on in the windows. “Mom, pull your dress down. There’s people—” “Do you see it? Do you see?”She’s wide awake now and I am so tired.“Mom, I see everything except a bug. Pull your dress down.” This is the woman who dressed and undressed under a sheet back in the house where the bathroom had no door. Who went out and bought her own sheets because what she found in the closet didn’t meet her standards of hygiene. “I think it was an earwig,” she says. “Do they bite? I didn’t know they bit.” I don’t even know what an earwig is. “Like a cockroach with pincers. Oh, maybe it used its pincers…?” She’s the same woman, the one who can’t shut up. “Get in the car.”“The human body is natural, right? But you’re disgusted, aren’t you? Do you think you looked good with that bag? Or those boys strutting about with their appendages bobbing in front of them? Please, please,” she says, “check inside my diaper. You’ve got to find it!”“Mom, you cannot stand naked in the street.”“Why not? Look at me! Who’s going to bother me now.” The accumulation of fat and wrinkles, knobs and bulges, hairs and rashes, stretch marks, protrusions, the sagging breasts I once nursed from, the turkey neck, the droopy jowls. But no plastic surgery for my Mom! “I’m not one of those people,” she said not long ago with a flash of that familiar scorn. “Money is power,” she says now. “No one can tell me what to do.” That’s when she has an accident, though I guess if you’re wearing an adult diaper it’s not an accident because if you’re wearing one, it’s expected. She has her dress pulled up to her neck and with the other hand she pulls the diaper down and stumbles a little as she steps out of it and leaves it filthy and stinking in the street.I rush to get to her and drag her with me to the trunk thinking please, please tell me you’ve brought supplies, a fresh diaper, a plastic bag for disposal. Nothing there but a jack and a spare so I take off my scarf, my silk scarf that I really like, and hand it to her. “Wipe yourself. Clean yourself up,” and I’m starting to worry that something’s really wrong. So yes, I’m distracted, because what am I going to do with her? and look, an electric car like this makes no sound. You can’t even tell if the engine’s running and I’m not paying attention so I completely miss the fact we’re getting carjacked. I don’t notice a damn thing till my mother’s new Tesla shoots forward, makes a sharp U-turn and disappears onto the freeway. Our cell phones, our purses, all in the front seat.“Where are we?” she says, but I don’t know. We’re going to have to head to the freeway for help. She cleans herself with my good scarf and leaves it along with the diaper in the street, but the stink follows us to the ramp and all the way to the side of the road. My mother tries to wave cars down. I step back into the shadows and watch her stick out her thumb.I never hitchhiked again after what happened. What I miss most about riding with strangers is the way I could talk to anyone. You could meet all sorts of people you would not otherwise have known. I rode with truckdrivers and farmers and prison guards. And soldiers, either just back from Vietnam or on leave before they got shipped out. In those days, everyone I knew in my ordinary life had a student deferment. We were vocal about ending the war but had never met anyone who’d actually been. Cars pass. No one stops which is sort of a relief. I just hope someone calls 911. The police kept asking me what was the last thing I remembered. There was the Navy guy just off a nuclear submarine. He told me he was the one who’d push the button if the button ever got pushed. That stuck in my head of course, but it might have been a different ride, an altogether different time and I hope it wasn’t him who hurt me. If he got the order to deploy those weapons, I asked him would he do it? “First I’d bend over, drop my pants and kiss my ass goodbye.” Cars keep passing. The headlights reveal my mother’s frantic face. She shouts back at me. “Why don’t they stop?” At least she’s forgotten the bug.“People used to take care of each other,” I say. “Like whoever beat you and raped you and left you for dead on a road like this,” she says.“I mean people like Juniper. Remember?”“Some people were good,” she says. “Not good. Ordinary. It was ordinary to help.”She’s got her dress above her waist again, using the fabric to fan herself. “Pull your skirt down, Mom.”“I need some air.”“You’ve got air.” There’s the wind from the cars speeding by, faster, way faster than the limit. So fast they can’t tell the evening dress she hikes up to her hips is beaded and lace-trimmed and expensive. She says, “How do you make them stop?” Sometimes you see what’s coming and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. I stay back in the shadows like an adolescent who doesn’t want to be seen with Mom. She looks homeless. She’s always been embarrassing. Some things never change. It’s always been difficult between us. It can’t be dementia. She’s the same woman she’s always been. She’s always been more generous than I am. “You put them on your Christmas list.” Now that I think of it, I’m sure she did. “You sent them cards, didn’t you?”She raises her arm as if hailing a cab as though there’s nothing here out of the ordinary. Just a mother and her daughter trying to get home, and the night will pass as all nights do, come what may.