California by Amanda Fletcher

dusk over pacific ocean

 

On the 4th of July, Michelle and I spread sheets on the lawn of her mother’s house in La Puente, laying them flat so we can watch the neighborhood lighting fireworks in the street. We don’t do fireworks like this in Canada.

I run my mother’s old engagement ring along its chain around my neck. Back and forth in the absentminded way I have been doing since I strung it there last month. The small diamond set so high that I can see through the space beneath it, the four sharp prongs of the setting making it difficult to wear. It catches my bare knees, gets knotted in my hair; breaks the skin on my forehead. It hangs on this chain beside a brass key from a flea market in Camden because I am not someone who wears rings. My fingers too short; stubby, my hands like my mother’s.

My mother was 24 when my father proposed. The ring was simple. The band is thick, and the edges are square. Just like my father. In their wedding photos, he towers over her as she leans into him like a child, a bouquet of roses pinned to the wide, white collar of her short dress. He looks completely out of proportion, top-heavy enough to protect her from my grandfather. She never talked about that first marriage to my real father, but I want to think that in the beginning, there was love. Don’t you know how much I love you? I see him shouting in her face, a loaded gun in his hand. A week after that, we were gone. I was three years old, we had nothing, and, still, my mother found the strength to leave.

She wasn’t single for long. Less than a year. Joe had a handlebar mustache and two teenage boys. He sold heavy equipment and drove a bottle green 1974 Mercury Grand Marquis. He wasn’t sure he wanted to raise another kid. I was the condition on their relationship, kicking rocks on the front porch of a rental house. It was only a few hours, he says, before I told her to come home. That feeling of being a burden buries me for a long time. The only way out from under it was to give as good as I got.

When I was in high school, my mother told me you get more with sugar than you do with salt, every time Joe charged down the stairs after another screaming match. Do you tell him that? I wanted to know, thinking, “fuck you” for expecting me to be the one who is right-sized.

I should have done things differently for you
But I didn’t

I wanted my mother all to myself. I used to sit on her bed in the mornings after Joe left for work, watching her pick out her earrings. I wasn’t interested in her plastic bangles or the enamel studs she had for every holiday. I wanted the box she kept in the back of a tiny top drawer on the left hand side of the dresser she shared with my stepfather. I made up that these were her most valuable things, instinctual things she kept close to her heart.

I am keeping this for you she said about the ring. Holding it up to the light I could see how the band had taken the shape of her finger, like a freehand drawing of a circle. My mother was left-handed. The ring must have pressed against so many hard surfaces, clipped doors, and drawers, and steering wheels. My baby stroller.

I like this one better than that one I told her, gesturing to the one my stepfather had given her. She got her nails done for a month after he proposed—I thought the fake tips looked ridiculous on her fat fingers. I probably told her so. Now I imagine how that cluster of diamonds in yellow gold must have dragged against the surface of a table while she wrote:

I can’t seem to get myself organized.
Worry too much about everything.
(Little things to everyone else but me.)

***

When I am 24, I am finishing my last semester of college, and living across town from my parents. By now I call my stepfather Dad, because he is the only one I have ever known—my real father like a ghost, kept in the back of that tiny, top drawer. I love having dinner with my mother. After years of tug of war, my stepfather and me pulling her between us, it finally feels like sharing a meal with a friend, passing a glass of wine back and forth, and talking about our days.

I am busy with school and work, but I know I am not turning out like my mother had hoped—the honors student, first one to go to college. Kinesiology is the study of human movement. I should have been an English major. I have no idea how to be in my own body. I still go to class, but I am bartending four nights a week, stretching a t-shirt over the breasts I used my tips to pay for.

Finish school
Please

Like a diploma is a road map to what comes next.

I am taking Women in Religion as my final elective, on Wednesday nights. I bring my mother to class. It is her first time on campus in four years. I raise my hand to tell my professor that my image of the goddess is sitting beside me. He calls my mother to the podium at the front of the lecture hall. She doesn’t want to go, but she makes herself do it, pushed along by the sound of so many clapping hands. I don’t remember what she says, only that even the tips of her ears were red, how she hides her embarrassed laughter behind a hand, the flash of diamonds on her finger. I want her to know how much she means to me, want that room full of students to see her, to really see my mother in a way I doubt she sees herself. Something more than the puff of hair around her head, the unflattering glasses, the extra flesh around her middle.

I know my mother is unhappy. She’s been forced into early retirement. And him she says over a mixed green salad at the Bean Bar at work all day, on the computer all night. She takes another long pull from her wineglass. She tells me he locks his office door from the inside, wonders what he is doing in there.

I need to come home more, I think, touching her hand. What if we run away together and we don’t tell anyone where we’ve gone?

To the beach she says.

To California we cheer, clinking our glasses together.

It is good to see her smile.

***

I see this smile as I imagine her feeding the dog, throwing in a load of laundry, and running the vacuum around the rec room in the basement. I hear her humming to herself as she grabs a handful of old towels from the closet beside the upstairs bathroom, takes them into the kitchen, draping them over her shoulder to pour herself a glass of juice. Apple juice. Tucking a book under her arm, she carries her burden into the garage. She drops the towels by the rear tire of her minivan, uses the key to raise the back door, folds all the seats down with one hand so she can fit her glass into the cup holder, opens the crook of her arm to let the book drop onto the vehicle’s carpeted floor. With both hands free she turns to the towels, squatting to pack them into the cracks under the garage doors.

On long drives I used to squeeze my face into the space between my mother and the passenger window, begging her to sing to me.

Stewball was a racehorse, and I wish he were mine.

I imagine this is what she is humming when she starts the car and settles down into the backseat to read, waiting for the carbon monoxide to fill the room.

***

Here I am, standing with my feet in the Pacific Ocean for the first time, but I am still screaming for my mother, staggering through a hospital corridor. Where is my mother? I want my mother.

When the waves cover my legs and then leave them bare, I see her dead body, her jaw frozen open, how her dentures have come loose. Can’t you fix her teeth? Please, just fix her teeth. I am surprised by the cold.

I will never be free of her dying. Even here in Los Angeles—two, ten, fifteen years later and three-thousand miles apart—I am still on my knees in the closet with the door pulled closed, clutching a piece of yellow lined paper.

Please try hard to forgive me
But I can’t live with me anymore

I can’t seem to get myself organized.
Worry too much about everything.
(Little things to everyone else but me.)

I should have done a lot of things differently for you
But I didn’t
Things are eating me up inside
I need to rest

Finish school
Please
It’s a lot to ask

I watch the sun set like a fireball over the ocean, the waves how they sparkle, like a cluster of diamonds. A ring can be so heavy it pulls you under. I wonder how long it would take me to drown.

***

Things were eating me up inside, too. I felt the pull of my own garage, waiting for me somewhere. I had to do something. So, I went home. And I slept in my old room for the first time in fifteen years.

***

My Dad put my mother’s jewelry box on the dining room table in front of me. He brushed the dust off the top. You said you were ready. When she died, I walked away from this house and all of her belongings. I knew that if I let myself step into her room, placed even one hand in an old winter glove, I would not have been able to come out of her closet, to stop myself from pulling on everything she had ever owned.

He was right about the box. I had asked for it; said it was time; but seeing it there on the table, in the same spot her ashes had sat for a week before we buried them, I needed to lie down on the carpet (right there rightnowdoit) and go to sleep.

There are so many ways to run, you don’t even have to move your feet.

This time I didn’t go. I stayed. I opened the lid and every drawer. I tried on every necklace, held every last ear stud, all of her rings. I took the things I loved—the black onyx earrings from my grandmother, a round sapphire—and left the heavy gold rope chains my stepfather bought for her. I strung the old engagement ring on the long brass chain and hung it around my neck.

***

I leave the 4th of July party stuffed. I go with a thumping between my ears, plastic containers full of leftovers and starbursts lighting the backs of my eyelids. You come over anytime, Sara, Michelle’s mom says, squeezing me so tight. I am never the one to tell her that Sara is not my name. What she calls me doesn’t matter, what’s important is how she makes me feel. Like I am a part of this family and this place. Like I belong.

I don’t reach for the necklace again until I get home. I go to pull it off for bed, and it’s gone.

I never even felt it fall.

Michelle pays the neighbor’s kid two bucks to cut the grass. I’ll keep you posted on his findings, she says. I knew I was taking a risk by wearing it around my neck, knew it could get lost, but I didn’t want to hide it in a box anymore. Wearing it was like exposing some version of my mother to the light after so many years in the dark.

I hope someone in love is wearing the ring, sliding it on her finger, noticing how the circle of gold bent to fit the original wearer. Maybe this is a way for my mother to live, at last, in California. To start over as something new.

amanda-fletcheA 2012 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow, Amanda Fletcher has been teaching writing in the recovery community for two years. She was a flash fiction finalist for the Orlando Prize and her work has appeared in the Orange County Register, Coast Magazine and AfterParty Magazine. She is working on her memoir, tentatively titled HALO.

 

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/chris-hartman

 

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  • sue

    Beautiful flow to this piece. A lovely ache to it….

  • Jade

    This is so beautiful. Thank you for sharing it.

  • jansand

    I have lived long enough to have lost quite a few important people so I well know at least something of what you write so well. It’s much appreciated.

  • Vkaps

    Oh the ache..
    Beautifully written. Thank you

  • Cheryl Smit

    Beautiful writing, well done, thank you for sharing

  • Donna Munro

    You brought your mother to life again with your writing. You exposed yourself with the depth of your heartache. It’s beautiful and sad. I lost my dad to suicide over 30 years ago. He’s with me every day, not matter where I go. Thank you.

  • Linda Daniels

    I’m hooked!

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