|Excerpts > Winter 2005|
Ma and Me
She’s the love of my life, for all my life, and she’s finally confined to bed.
We’ve been home alone for the last 12 hours, an unbroken seam of pills, and feedings, glass tumblers full of cloudy water, soaked Depends, cryptic blood splotches, endless changes of linens or clothing, phantom pains, garbled speeches, and phone calls.
And this was just the first night.
When Lambert comes by to drop off the prescriptions, I barely greet him. He asks me how Ma is. I shake my head.
In her room, I place the new medication, the morphine, next to the others. It looms, the largest of the bottles, a prop in a Hitchcock film.
“Don’t take ’em all at once,” he tells her.
He jokes with her in a way I never can. She beams, llama-toothed, loving his sense of humor. Getting it, even though many of the words have lost their meanings. She feels recognized, provoked. She’s always been morbid, and knows it.
He pats her muu-muu’d shoulder.
“When is that pigeon-head going to take me home?” she asks him.
You are home, I tell her. She’s sitting up, throned in her motorized bed. Wearily, I point out familiar items, evidence in my defense. On the dresser, photos in frames, traditional figurines of Buddhas and Quan Yin, ceramic Chinese children. There’s stuff we made together, silk flowers, glass pillows, velveteen bears and frogs. And, on the walls, paintings we did separately: my Cubist flirtation, my Abstract Expressionist fling, my Blue Period, all art schoolish and naive. And the paintings she stunned me with the year I was finishing my degree, done spontaneously, competitively, in our garage. A floral still life, paint applied with a palette knife, hangs opposite the bed, signed with her Chinese name. No painting in our little museum dates past the moment I, as if saying ‘uncle,’ packed up my last brush.
Lambert listens impatiently. He hates something in my tone. The words bother him, too. He tells me not to argue with her. He says I’m getting old, always stuck in the past. He’s brought some papers to go over. He leads me into the living room, tells me to pay attention to what I’m signing. What if he’s stealing my inheritance? We laugh. Sam (we’ve always called our father Sam) put every penny he earned into our education. We’re grateful to him. We long for more.
The decisive fall came the day of my little brother’s wedding. His fourth. The bride’s third. Ma, before she became demented, would have been appalled at their spending a portion of the deceased previous husband’s bank account on a ceremony.
There was hidden sadism in his wanting Ma there as a full participant, but I went along with it anyway. It was just assumed that I was in charge of her four changes of clothing, her gifts to the couple, the special trip to the safety deposit box to select and say good-bye to yet another piece of family jade. I had to get out the formal porcelain tea set, clean the greasy dust from its curves, and buy fancy tea. I never shirk my hand-maidenly duties. By the time a bunch of cousins called to help, I was good and ready for it. Relatives forget about you day to day, but for weddings there’s a resurgence of familial urges, a few hours of being somewhat taken care of for a change. Relief from being solely responsible.
I’d gotten her through the noisy dim-sum lunch in the packed hall. Later at home we’d changed and sat stiff as ventriloquist’s dummies, while Viva, wife-to-be number four, knelt in her clingy green cheong-sam offering tea with a combination of excitement and irony. Cousins came by to help with the numerous transfers, from chair to walker to elevator to car to wheelchair to restaurant to bathroom.
After the change from church to evening clothes, after we’d arrived at Tommy’s on Grant for the traditional ten-courser, I’d lost track of her momentarily, among all the arms and helping younger hands. The grandnieces and nephews, and great-grandchildren underfoot, the music a dizzying whine, the beginnings of flush in all our cheeks genetically programmed to appear after only tablespoons of Riesling.
Viva was making her grand entrance in bridal red. The pair had selected Autumn Leaves, oddly accompanied by the clash of Chinese cymbals. There was applause, and oohs and ahhs at the shimmering of the gown, shown off to glamorous effect on a spectacularly neat figure for a woman in her sixties. I looked behind me. In the doorway opposite Viva’s, Ma stood alone, balancing wide-gaited with her cane. She seemed startled, as though it had just occurred to her what the day might be about. Despite the twenty-four hours of pin-curls, her little ruff of hair stuck endearingly straight up. One stocking had crept down her leg. She looked haloed, and as if just awakened from a nap.
She toppled sideways like a chess-piece, and would have cracked her head, if a chair hadn’t broken her fall.
We’d emerged from other mishaps shaken, but giddy, having escaped together alive. Now, she lay stunned, and pale. She wouldn’t move.
The relatives teemed and gaped like carp. Cousin Harry, the dentist, took charge. While we waited for the EMS, we argued. I insisted that Lambert stay, and let Harry accompany me. The kitchen kept churning out dishes, butterflied prawns, crispy brown squab served with individual condiment plates of spiced salt.
Ma, on the floor, was concerned that the food would go to waste, and periodically would call out to people that they should eat.
EMS arrived and the huge, round food-laden tables scuttled sideways, like twenty-four-legged crabs, to give them room to work.
I trailed her stretcher, mouthwatering platters of hacked chicken, garnished with their own disembodied bald heads, wafting by.
“We’ll save you some food, Auntie!” someone called to her, sweetly.
Cuffed and splinted from toe to chin, she raised her hand in acknowledgement. There was a round of applause, rewarding her show of spirit, and by association mine, as we left.
In the hospital things went from bad to worse. There was the MRI, the surgery, the pneumonia, the first mild stroke, then the second mild stroke, and then a second pneumonia. Relatives tried to talk us around to the idea of a nursing home. By the time the doctors were saying the bones weren’t mending, she could no longer swallow, and she should have a permanent stomach tube for feedings, relatives were saying, Let her die.
Lambert and I looked into it. We couldn’t figure out how. Starving her to death seemed a bit more active than letting her die.
We searched our souls and our pocketbooks. She got the stomach tube, and a discharge to home care.
His morning visit lasts only a few minutes. He’s upbeat. He hovers, soaking up the sight of her looking cuddly in booties. He says to call if I need anything. She shouts from the other room that, to protect his health, he better not stay out too late with that woman. Then he leaves to take Viva shopping. He wears the expression he’s always worn whenever he’s left the family – a combination of sheepishness and exultation.
When Monica, the Filipino Girl, as the family will refer to her, arrives, I jump into the shower and stay there. As I shower, I say to myself, This is your life. This is your life.
I’m the daughter who never married, the designated caretaker. Career-wise, I escaped the expected path for educated women in my family, the allied health professions (for some families it’s accounting, others, engineering, who can say why?) including dental hygiene, and optometry. I majored in studio art at UC Berkeley. I graduated with Honors, and a one-man show in the Student Lounge. A gallery carried one of my paintings for two weeks. It didn’t sell. That was enough of a reality-check for me. I lived at home, and wanted to be a good daughter and contribute towards rent and food. I looked for a job and was hired in the Art and Occupational Therapy division at Maya Honda Hospital and Home for the Aged. Ma was relieved; Sam was proud. Both expected that I could do a lot more with my talent, eventually. When I took early retirement at fifty-five, the administration despaired of ever again finding anyone who could do the cunning things I had done with felt and foil. The slide show retrospective of my holiday themes and decorations drew tears at my goodbye party. Everyone told me, when I left, to get some capital, while there’s still time, start a business. I could be a millionaire. Sam predicted that I would; Ma predicted I’d be too lazy. In any case, something never materialized: my Patron? my Muse? my Prince?
Sam passed away, and I reverted back to life with Ma.
It didn’t seem like he was dead, but more like the few years in my childhood when he had to work night shift, and all he was was a snoring shade in the bedroom. Now, when the relatives have stopped calling and everyone seems to just assume that I’m a nurse and can handle all this, I wonder, What went wrong?
And I’m not sure that anything did.
I emerge from the shower steaming. I hear arguing. Monica is being firm, trying to get Ma settled. I retreat to my room.
I drop my towels. The air dries me.
Monica shouts that she’s going to put some laundry in. I hear her heading for the basement.
I go into Ma’s room. Seeing me naked doesn’t disturb her. She assumes whatever context she finds least unsettling. Perhaps we’re on vacation, and about to bathe. I crawl into her bed.
She eyes me, the way she eyes her weakened left hand, with limited acknowledgement. I snuggle up, my palm on her neck. When I was little, I used to sneak in to bed with her, while she slept, to stare at her butterscotch skin, and blue-black hair, seeing myself. She was my only subject, ever, whether recognizable in muu-muu and apron, or anonymous, in the somber nudes I allowed myself one summer, matronly and exotic. I sketched her in the evenings. She didn’t like it. She said I was chasing her soul away.
Now, I’m catching up with her. I press against her, matching skin, mixing hair. We’re the same: gray, white, freckles and crepe, yellowing horns of nails. We’re witch material.
She whispers something. She’s finally responding. Tears are rolling. Why are you so spoiled? she’s asking me. You’ll never grow up.
Monica comes in, looks aghast, and backs out. I wonder if she’ll be disturbed enough to leave.
Ma asks me why I didn’t at least offer the Filipino girl a cup of tea?
She returns with Ma’s tube-feeding on a tray. She looks at me with a nurse’s no-nonsense neutrality. The set of her shoulders, though, says, Please, I need this job. Ma asks if she’d like some tea. I relent, and go to my room to dress.
I’m punch-drunk from the relief of it, after all those months of hovering over Ma grown frail, in terror of the broken hip, poised to break the fall, catching her, failing her. Once just seeing her fall, I fumbled a tray of bottles I’d washed for the recycling bin, so that the EMS guys had glass shards in their rubber soles when they left. I gave her a focus, someone to berate for clumsiness, while the hand of God wielded a club.
As I pull on my sweatpants, I hear Monica administering the tube feeding. “Oh, Ma,” she’s saying in a sort of sing-song. “You’re having a yummy meal. You’re going to feel so full and nice.” She’s not ironic. Bless her for that.
After, Ma starts raging. Apparently, I’m starving her to death because I’m too lazy to cook. I try to sneak past her door. After all I’ve done for you, she screams at me. Why did I even bother?
It’s true that, everything considered, cooking in particular she has coming to her in spades. Excellent cooking. An insomniac, she used to get up at four am and start the soup for dinner, while rising dough for breakfast, and steaming rice for lunch.
Abandoned by her father, orphaned by her mother, shaped by the Depression, she took solace in what she fed us. The end of her life would be a flowing back to her, elegant as a turning of the tide as she began to recede from shore.
Now, as she continues ranting, it hits me: she’s demented, irrational, feeble, unaware, and I’m still disappointing her. There’s something overwhelming about that. After some illicit cereal, eaten standing in the kitchen, I cry in my bed. I doze; I dream. I’m shaping dumplings, the precise combination in my palm: shrimp, black mushroom, water chestnut, a sliver of ham, a piece of scallion. I roll each bundle in cow omentum; they look gloved in white lace. I dip in milk; I flour. I see them browning in hot oil, and then arranged on an enormous platter on a ti leaf, the way we used to. She pops one whole into her mouth and swallows. She becomes light as air and floats away. The heavens open for her. It’s pretty obvious.
Later, she dozes, and I hear her calling in her sleep, “Sil op! Sil op!” Roast duck.
I only get three weeks before Monica calls in sick. I don’t believe anymore that young, healthy women get sick. Ma is sick. I should be sick.
Rain beats at the windows. I make hot chocolate and toast. It would be more comforting to eat sitting down.
Ma yells. The complaints are familiar.
I go to her. I hand her my toast. The doctor forbade even sips of water, anything that could carry the bacteria lethally from mouth to lungs.
She looks at it. Triangular, golden, warm and buttery. She puts it in her mouth. We sit together, while she chews and chews. She can’t swallow.
When she naps, I remove the sticky bolus, like a compressed cocoon, from her mouth.
I panic. I’ve killed her. I wipe her mouth out with damp Kleenex.
Her eyes open. She’s furious at the invasion. Furious. Very alive.
It’s been eight weeks. Lambert called or came by daily. Viva dropped by to show us wedding pictures. Harry called twice from Hawaii to ask if there was anything he could do. We’ve all done our bit, but the adjustment period is over, and she hasn’t adjusted. She’s comfortable; we’re able to change her position a lot. She hasn’t any bedsores, but I know on principle, we should be getting her up more, taking her out for a stroll. She needs light, and air.
I take the bottle of morphine and shake out two pills to grind. I’ll place it in her tube with breakfast.
I waffle. It seems nonsensical. Let her be. What need does she have of the outside world?
But I have been neglectful, I tell myself. Unconscionably, inexplicably so. It’s as if I’ve been waiting for her to recognize me, the good daughter.
It was a mistake. She wants to think that she’s in hell, in limbo, kidnapped by a demon child. That when she’s convinced me to be good, all will be right again.
She has half of a point.
Or more likely, I’ve just been lazy.
I’m at my limit. My sciatica is aflame from all the lifting and bending. I’m as sleep-deprived as a prisoner-of-war.
Monica calls in with a family emergency.
I can barely drink my tea. It’s seven am. The next 24 hours could be infinity. When I rub my face, I feel mummified flesh.
I get myself dressed. I get her fed and dressed. I don’t know the person who is accomplishing this feat. Eventually, she’s sitting propped up in a blue knit dress and oatmeal cardigan. I comb her hair.
Just in case, I slip the bottle of morphine into my pocketbook.
Lambert calls and asks to speak to her. I hold the phone to her ear. She tells him that we’re going out to eat. She invites him along. She’s clearly excited.
When I get on, Lambert asks me what’s going on. I tell him nothing. That Monica must have said something about what a nice day it is. I tell him I’m tired. Not to come by today. I’m taking a nap.
He’s in an odd mood. He says he’s been worried about me. We tried to make it work, but a nursing home might be a good idea after all.
I blow my stack. What is he thinking? What is he saying? How can he presume to know what it’s like here? Why does he think he can imagine anything? We agreed to this.
He seems reduced to bleating. Are you sure? He keeps asking me. Are you sure?
I don’t say that I can handle it. I tell him, Over my dead body.
He pauses, then he says he’ll come by tomorrow to talk about it.
I tell him to shut up.
I get her into her wheelchair. Without her helping, she’s heavy as a corpse. I think of the sufferings of murderers in the movies, when they try to hide the body and the crime. They sweat bullets; they strain and curse. There’s a lot of macabre flopping around. There’s an illusion of life: the victim is punishing the criminal. In death. By being dead.
As if to complete the illusion, I place her pocketbook in her lap.
“Why don’t you just call the men, and tell them to take me away?”
We’re in the garage beside the car. Her pocketbook is upended on the floor. We’re in a lover’s embrace. I’ve just whacked her head gently against the car door-frame and fallen on top of her in the front seat. Her voice, an almost unintelligible gargling, makes me start. What’s happened to her dentures?
I tell her I won’t let them take her away. That, besides, she has to die first.
I load the wheelchair clumsily, closing the trunk on its handles before succeeding. I get into the car. Ma is already complaining, about the noise, the delay. She’s starving and I’m fiddling. One turn, another – while Ma frets – and the car starts, after months unused, as in a dream.
We move out of the driveway. As we turn, Lambert’s BMW pulls in. His head jerks around as we pass.
We’re on Lakeside Drive. In the rearview mirror, he’s on the sidewalk, gangly arms waving overhead.
The sun is climbing, the fog already gone. We pass the man-made lake, ducks bobbing in the green salt-water.
Ma perks up; she smacks her lips. She tells me to hurry. She assumes we’re going for dim sum. She’s worried about our chances of getting a table. She doesn’t want to make Lambert wait.
I tell her to relax. We’ll be there soon.
We turn onto the freeway. In a moment we’re at the exit to Chinatown, which I pass. She gets angry. She asks where I learned to drive.
I look in the rearview mirror, half-expecting to see the black hulk of Lambert’s car.
I tell her to calm down. That we’re going to a new dim sum place. I tell her I’m tired of the old ones.
She tells me to turn around. I say I know where I’m going. She tells me I’m din-din dee-ah. Crazy.
She keeps it up. She strains at the seat belt gathering steam. In the hospital, delirious, she’d looked the same, straining at the muslin posy. Looking at herself, at me, at nurses, with a fury that said: Where are my arms? Like she thought she was an amputee.
I have no idea what I’m doing, where I’m going. I’m tempted to listen to her and turn off the road. She sniffs around. I’m failing her, so she’ll find the trail. She’s certain which of us is competent.
Where am I going? I’m heading for water, first the Bay, then across the Bay Bridge, then along the waterfront and towards the ocean. The sun glints off the Bay and the silver struts of the bridge; the car feels like a gleaming streak, gas and go, unhampered by bones.
When I was little, we lived in a tiny house in Hawaii, paces from the beach. There was nothing on that shore back then. Just other shacks like ours. I remember going barefoot as the natural thing to do, with shoes rare and as constricting as a corset. I helped with the cleaning and cooking, but wasn’t the most motivated student. There was plenty of time to poke around the beach with the cousins, and gossip, and do things with flowers and to your hair. There were always grounded sea creatures to turn over with sticks. Ma tried to stop me from swimming, because I was a girl, though she said because a lady had been killed by a Portuguese Man-o-War off that beach. I was brave; I knew I was immune.
There were ghostly sea-nettles in the water to scald you now and then, turtles with smooth backs to touch.
Lambert was a beanpole of a kid, smirking. We fought a lot, and didn’t play together. Where’re you going? I’d say. Spear-fishing, he’d answer, brandishing a twig. And then at some point it be-came, Down King’s pier to see the Filipino girls.
Ma moans. Her good hand pulls repeatedly at the seatbelt and lets go. She’s gotten the hang of it, resorting to the tactics of rebellious prisoners taunting their guards. Every now and then a guard loses it, taking a nightstick to a son-of-a-bitch in shackles.
I make conversation. Why, I ask her, did she treat Lambert like royalty, and her daughter like the house drudge? Sam worked two jobs so we could go to school, and, free-thinking, believed that a woman should have education and a career. Is this why I have it all?
It’s as if she catches the tone if not the words. She stops her racket. She seems to ponder. You didn’t want a husband, she tells me. You liked to stay home. You were the lazy one.
In San Francisco we prowl the traffic of Fisherman’s Wharf. I close the windows to shut out the frying seafood and cotton candy, the noxious smell of tar. She moans again, loud, demanding. The smells make her salivate. Or perhaps she’s really getting hungry. She opens the glove compartment giving herself a lapful of old maps and eyeglass cases. Something spills. She curses.
All I have is morphine. The bottle says,as needed for pain. It’ll do, I think. Close enough. We’ll have a lotus-flower picnic. If she keeps this up.
When we get moving again, she calms down. The car climbs and dips on the road-swells leading to the Golden Gate. On the rises, I glimpse the bridge, the color of cooked lobsters. Ma indicates that she’s peeing. I can smell it. I’ve packed no diapers. No change of clothes.
I would have been a terrible mother.
She hates being wet. She hates the smell. She pulls at her clothes. She’s undone her buttons. I’m afraid she’ll yank her stomach tube. I speak to her sharply: Leave it alone. I mean it!
She stops, but she’s furious again. She calls me names. Names I’ve never heard her use before.
I tell her to shut up. That none of this is my fault. She did it herself. She’s a sick woman. Full of envy. Unable to let anyone have a life of their own. You ruined Lambert’s wedding, I tell her. And for what? What did you get? You didn’t get to eat anything at the banquet. It serves you right, I say.
She’s livid. I tell myself that she can’t possibly understand what I’m saying. We’ve tapped into her reflexes. It’s second nature for her to fight. It’s never been so clear to me before. But she’s yelling. Her mouth has foam. She’s not so much yelling as barking.
We’re on the Golden Gate. I open the windows and let the cold breeze whip. I don’t know how she’ll take it, if she’ll even recognize the sensation. Our short, no-muss cottony hair goes chaotic. It quiets her. It’s exhilarating. After a moment, I see that she’s squinting tears. She mouths something. I ignore her. When we reach the other side, and I close the window, I hear what she’s saying: Shut the door. Please, shut the door.
We come off on the other end, scale a mound where early mountain bikers are nose-diving down an immense loose dirt path, then wind and soar and wind towards the beaches. The smooth tops of the foothills jut above bowls of steaming fog. The rising veils mute the look of the landscape. When we finally emerge into sunlight, we’re blinded by color.
As the road hairpins we see the water. The Pacific, the mottled black rocks off-shore; I want to crane, watching for stretches of sand, hidden coves. I don’t dare take my eyes off the asphalt: mountainside on the right, cliff-edge on the left, unravelling gravel curves, leftovers from a giant’s awe-inspiring bites. I long to hear the waves.
The sound of the ocean was constant growing up. Even after moving to the mainland I couldn’t pinpoint its absence. I remember the way my parents fought, and hearing it from my bed night after night, the waves making opera out of noise. Her voice ebbing and flowing, Sam’s monosyllabic in reply. Sometimes the crashing of dishes, or pots and pans. After he died, two decades, not so long ago, our bickering resonated like a phantom ocean in a shell.
Some of the turns seem to pitch us back where we came. She asks for a cup of coffee. She sounds polite. The nausea inhibits her. It strikes me, as if for the first time, how helpless she is.
I don’t feel bad. I feel liberated.
I tell her that Sam was a good man, and she never appreciated him. That he lifted her from poverty. That he took care of her. That she always acted as though he were her special burden. Even his heart attack. Before that his cholesterol, his shoes, his smells. Where was her gratitude? The reward of love? Acceptance?
She seems pensive in a disconnected way. Sam was a good man, she says, and starts to sob. I’ve heard her say it before. Her saying it isn’t enough. Is far from enough.
They used to fight in the car. Lambert and I cowering in the back, while Sam, beside himself, lurched us around, as if that were some defense. Once on the windy roads high above Kaalaea Bay, Ma, screeching, tried to throw herself out. The door opened, a wing onto space, the ocean below. Her pink dress billowed, then Sam captured the whole skirt of it in his wide grip and wrapped it once, twice, like a bandage around his fist, his left hand steadying the wheel. Her legs fought him, her rear end heaving. As the car slowed to a stop, I heard a higher, shriller sound, myself screaming, not in panic, but in rage.
I tell her that Sam should have let her fly out the door that day. When has it not been about her, and only her? We were only little kids. And if Sam could barely handle her, what did she expect from me?
I see a turnout up ahead. I pull in, abruptly, and skid to a halt. I look around. There are a few parked cars and motorcycles, but no trail, nothing of interest in sight. Across the two lanes the road drops off into thin air. Spare stalks of dried grass line the cliff-edge, teasing the sky.
I wrench the wheelchair from the trunk, and go around to Ma. Her eyes are wide open, but I see no sense in them of the novelty of my actions. She’s baseline confused and angry, no more.
She makes hateful sounds as I load her. Despite the brake, the wheelchair shifts in the loose gravel. Somehow, in the jostling, her wrist is scraped; the delicate skin tears like ripe peel. “Oh for crying out loud,” she says, Sam’s favorite expletive, too, and an apt one for them. The blood drips. I have nothing to blot it with. It’ll dry.
I wheel her across the road. Perhaps, I’d guessed this, perhaps not, but there’s a steep rocky path on the other side about two people deep. The beach, if there is one, is still out of sight. An undulation of red cliff, and some squared, black boulders down below. I have a moment of vertigo: overwhelming ocean, huge ants swarming around a blood droplet at our feet, tiny boulders, wisp of sand. I start down, careening, and then managing to brake and maintain an inching pace. After half a minute, I’ve given up thinking. I’m a lemming drawn by waves. My sensible loafers have barely any traction in the dry clay. My back is already hurting in an alarming, I’m–about–to–give kind of way.
A group of three appears, coming up. At a distance they’re politely nonchalant, but as they get closer, they stare at us alarmed. They climb purposefully towards us. They’re in great shape to come so fast. The path feels perpendicular. I’m dizzy, and having trouble keeping us upright. I’m gasping, grunting. There are tears in my eyes, but I don’t want to break down, am finally too old and dry and determined to do it.
They call us “grannies.” They’re concerned. I’m not sure what I’m conveying, but we talk back and forth, and, suddenly, it seems decided, and in action as fluid and abrupt as the taking to flight of gulls, we’re all headed down.
Ma is riding, her wheelchair now a sedan, an attendant on each side. I have the odd sensation of soaring above her. Revelation: I could never in a million years have made it down, with her or without her.
What are these men? What is their purpose? They carried no surfboards. Neither are they the wave-sculpted, nut-brown youths one would find at this hour on surfing beaches. The huge one, whose potbelly seems unbothered by my bony hip, is tattooed. My right arm rests on hairy, sun-leathered shoulders. His beard reeks of beer and other things.
Ma has slumped companionably sideways. Despite the jolting, she seems placid and without pain. Her eyes focus. She takes the ponytail of one and combs it with her fingers. “This is nice,” she says. “But you should cut it anyway.”
They ask me what she said. I tell them. They laugh.
They must be regulars. They’re at ease with every scree-patch. They’re agile even in mid-slide. In no time, we’re approaching the level of the water.
Out past the breakers, sleek black-haired heads are bobbing. I’m homesick, confused. They look like relatives. But, a few seconds closer, I see that they’re California sea-lions. There are no human beings in the chilly water.
Through a rocky portal, and the beach opens before us. It’s surprisingly full of activity. The men place us on a flat patch of sand with rocks of comfortable sitting height. They seem relaxed and pleased with themselves, and, as if their sole need was recreation, they run off to play. There are frisbees sailing everywhere. In a second, they’ve dropped their shorts, and joined into a game. I realize that all of them are naked. All the inhabitants of the beach.
Ma has never seemed more poised. Sun, wind, the pounding of waves against the high barnacled rocks, the cry of gulls, the naked frisbee players, she takes it all in, hunched forward with the pleasurable concentration she used to devote to watching tv. No one seems perturbed by us at all.
The men are graceful. They have technique. They’re thinking like birds, at one with the air currents. I’m fascinated to note that, as they torque the frisbees, their penises whip around as well, like indices of something poignant and alive. I’m impressed.
A frisbee lights a few steps away, and the man who picks it up smiles briefly at us. Ma beams back as if confronted by baby Lambert, frolicking in the sun.
How we must appear to them, two wizened Chinese rendered twins by love and hate. One near death, the other not far behind. They must be ignoring us out of gallantry, not indifference, assuming prurient interest, and indulgent of our oddness.
I’m remembering myself on another beach, long ago. Ten and sodden, and abraded by sand, and standing in the shallows. I’d fallen in with a group of neighborhood boys a few years older, who’d invited me to try body-surfing. When we got there, they ran in, leaving me behind. I made five attempts to get past the breakers; each time, refusing to dive as I knew I should, I found myself heaved, crushed, churned for a lung-bursting half-minute, on an incomplete gasp of air. I came to my senses, realizing that I was unable to master my fear. I had to give up or drown.
The boys, I remember, called out and waved; they saw my retreat. One rode back in, carving gracefully with his little hand-paddle. Only tomboys swam anyway, but I was humiliated; I was crying. I turned away. He took my hand, encouraging me. I looked back at him, through eyes a miserable blur of tears.
I walked home, alone. For some reason, I cried the whole way. A bicycle passed from behind. Some mutts lay in the shade by the road. I turned onto our path, part gravel, part sand. Rotting hibiscus softened the ground.
I began to soothe myself, tell myself things. My tears stopped; I felt better.
She’ll be on the porch, I told myself, hanging out towels to dry. I saw her hands, reddened from work. I smelled them, smelling of soap.
Soon, she’ll yell at me for what I did. She’ll take me inside and sit me on the kitchen stool. She’ll scare me with the things that could have happened and scold me for not listening. She’ll iodine my scrapes. She’ll fix my hair.
I’ll know who I am, and what I’ve been.
And I’ll be sorry.