I Asked My Mother

Lesley Dormen

I called my mother and asked her if I could have two thousand dollars.

She said I’d have to wait until after her face lift.

I said I needed it now.

She said, “You’re not critical of me for getting a face lift, are you?”

“Of course not,” I said. “I hope you’ll give me the money when I need mine.”

My mother was eating Lean Cuisine in her dining room and I was eating pork lo mein on my bed. We were in the same time zone but at a distance.

“I’ll call you back,” I said. “I have another call.”

It was my married lover, from a pay phone. I hurried out to meet him in the kind of restaurant that has Christmas decorations year-round. It went well. After we parted I went to an expensive store and bought a wardrobe for our future life together: resort clothes, city clothes, hostess skirts.

“Enjoy them!” the saleswoman said.

“I know I will!” I said.

I dragged the shopping bag behind me as if it were a crabby, overtired child.

When I got home I added up the column of numbers in my checkbook. 
Then I called my mother back.

“I made a mistake,” I told her. “I need four thousand dollars. And I need it next week, at the latest.”

My mother said things were different now because her husband was bankrupt. “There isn’t any money,” is how she put it.

She said she’d try to come up with something while she was at the spa. She told me she wasn’t flying first class. “Those days are over,” she said.

I put my mother on hold to take another call. When I came back, we talked about other things. I asked my mother if she had any clothes I could have.

“There’s a suede jacket,” she said. “I’ve had it for fifteen years. It’s never even been dry-cleaned.” She said I couldn’t have the fox coat.

I was feeling warmly toward my mother. I told her I might come to visit her soon. “But I’m not promising,” I said.

I CALLED MY  mother and asked her if she wanted lunch or dinner on her birthday.

She said, “If we have dinner, what will I do the whole day?”

I wanted to know why my mother felt entitled to a whole day but I changed the subject. I told my mother I had a new haircut I liked. 

“Is it short?” she said in an excited voice. “I love your hair short!”

I told her it wasn’t short. “I hate my hair short,” is what I said. I hadn’t intended to change the subject that much.

I was on the phone in my apartment and my mother was on the phone in hers. It was bright and warm outside, it was afternoon, it was Sunday—the worst possible combination.

“Did you see Dynasty the other night?” my mother said. She was eating coffee-flavored Nips, two at a time. I could hear them.

I pretended I had never heard of such a program and was insulted to be asked about it. I didn’t say I was watching Little House on the Prairie

“What are your plans?” my mother said. 

I heard a noise in the hallway outside my door. I tiptoed to the door with the phone cradled to my chest. I looked through the peephole. No one was there. 

I asked my mother, “What am I going to do?”

My mother asked me what I meant.

I looked around at the objects in my apartment: A fake ficus tree, some posters tacked to the walls, the complete works of Anita Brookner. Each object seemed to possess enough ill-will to bludgeon me senseless.

I said the same words again.

Because of the Nips I couldn’t tell if my mother said, “This is your year to be married” or “You could get a job as a receptionist.”

I flipped through my address book to see who else to call. There were the people in the present. There were the people in the past. There were the people with too many crossed-out and rewritten area codes. There were the jury duty and the tap-dancing class people it had been a mistake to use ink on. All the rest were the people it was impossible to call. 

When I hung up, I opened the door and stuck my head into the hall. I looked around but no one was there. From inside my apartment I could hear the phone not ringing. I could hear the people I couldn’t call not calling me.

I CALLED MY mother to ask her to call me and leave a message. I needed to know if my answering machine was working.

Her answering machine answered. I hung up before the beep.

Then I immediately redialed her number. She picked up.

“Where were you!” I demanded. I didn’t really want to know, I was just being polite. 

“I need to have a serious talk with you,” my mother said in a stern voice.

I interviewed the contents of my refrigerator. I looked out the window to see if my lover might be passing by with his wife. I examined my pores in a magnifying mirror. I waited for the part where my mother said, “I have to be able to say what I feel, don’t I?”

“Can you call me back?” I said.

When the phone rang again, I let my answering machine pick up. After the beep, my mother said in a bright, flirtatious voice, “Testing! Testing! Hello? This is your mother calling!” I threw myself across my bed and wept.

The phone rang and rang and rang. I dared myself to believe it could be anyone.

“I just want you to have what you need,” my mother said after the beep.

I CALLED THE  floor nurse and asked if my mother was conscious. 

She said she was the same. 

I hovered over my mother’s bed.

“Mom?” I said. “Mom?”

My mother didn’t answer. 
I sat in the window. I stared at the Park.
I hovered over my mother. “Mom?” I said. “Mom?”
My mother didn’t answer. 

I ate M & Ms and potato chips. I left the room and walked in a big circle. I saw a well-known actress leaning over the bed of her father.

I came back to where I started from. “Mom?” I said. “Mom?”

“Mom!” my mother said. “Mom!” She was mimicking me!

I laughed a laugh that had nothing to do with laughing. I asked my mother, “Are you mad at me?”

My mother said, “Why would I be mad?”