By Natasha Yglesias
Mother’s day, I have always thought, is more about guilt than love. I feel this truth especially here. The other women welcome children at the door, arms open wide, blocking the sight of this place. “Come to your mother,” they say: “Mama has missed you.” There are times I look towards the entrance, hoping to see the face of someone who does not know I am here. I mirror these women as they crane their necks and shift nervously in their seats.
Little girls wrapped in wool, damp and shivering but happy, reach for their mother’s warmth. I know she is not coming to this foreign place. I have not had a mother since childhood, when I was small and lithe and browned by the desert sun. I have forgotten the nuances in her voice, the lines and freckles speckling her skin. Yet while those things may have left, here in this clinic I still feel the desert on my skin. If I look, I find the dust of my childhood home settled in between the lines of my palms. The tops of my knuckles are still cracked and rough. Here, during this day in this sterilized place, I sit and wait for my mother to reassert herself in my mind. I wait for a revelation of love. I am trying hard to make one happen.
I try and focus. I see Camille walking ahead, carrying a gleaming screwdriver in her hand as dust and sand take her away. I see her at the bottom of that ravine she dragged me down into, surrounded by all kinds of dead things, my mother’s voice calling after us impatiently.
And then finally: my mother. I see her fingers flicked upwards towards me as Camille closes the door—“Oh,” moaning, shuddering in the hidden corners of that room. Then, her image gone again with the click of the door’s latch, snuffed out and locked away for the night. “Oh.”
Where do I begin?
“Get up,” my mother said, clutching my feet through the bed sheet. With a start, I checked the clock on my bedside table—school was not for three more hours.
“Do you hear it?” she asked, eyes wide and unwavering. “Listen!”
She led me outside, and in my sleepy daze I barely noticed the sharp pebbles which stuck to the bottoms of my soft feet. She smiled and said: “They’re here.”
The air shimmered, thrummed waves of continuous rattling. I stared out past the twisted Joshua trees into the flat horizon, freshly exposed by the light of dawn.
“They’re cicadas,” my mother said. “They’ve dug themselves out of the ground.” She motioned to the succulents, and I witnessed the uneven dry earth. She took me to the trees, and I saw the hollow bodies perched on the bark. She placed one in my palm; the translucent brown shell split down the back.
“They’re here for only a few weeks,” she told me, lowering herself onto our front steps and tucking her dress beneath her. “Then they go underground for seventeen years.” She beckoned me closer. “Come here, sit and listen with me.”
“What about school?” I asked, sitting down next to her. My mother wrapped her arms around my small body, still coming out of its own sleepy shell and said, “You are learning now.”
I met Camille that first day of summer. She was a tall woman with wild hair and round, protruding eyes. Camille moved while standing still, her bare arms strong and sinewy and lean. She held a gallon-sized, plastic water jug that was half full, still looking parched as she placed it down to leave her hands open, leathery palms splayed in welcome. I remember my fear of her as I tried to sift through my confusion, looking to my mother for an explanation. My mother led me to her, and I watched as her hand left mine to join Camille’s, fingers lacing in a fascinating, intimate way. It was stark, the difference between my clumsy cupped hold and what I saw before me. It said everything in one delicate transfer of control.
My mother was different around Camille. She was broken down to her most elemental form, shedding the semblances of motherhood to reveal the raw core of a woman I had yet to meet. I watched her retreat into Camille’s room each visit, ready to begin the process of becoming something new. I saw the golden light of this transition flicker through the seams of the closed door; I felt the whole earth tremble in her satisfaction. I wanted to know this feeling.
In the beginning, Camille caught me sneaking. Aching to understand, I combed through the ends of her sandy hair, fanned out as she slept, limbs draped across the couch in her air-conditioned living room. I became courageous in my explorations, eagerly touching the tan skin along her elbows, her shoulders, ready to be transformed.
She grabbed my wrist, pinned her gaze on me as my blood pulsed around her grip. Squeezing around me tight she warned: “Be careful.”
In group we reflect—we talk about the things we have learned. I have much to share; my childhood was made up of lessons in misbehaving. My mother was my teacher: this is how you think, this is who you know. Watch: I will show you.
I saw my mother with others and I learned how to be a magnet, how to cleave to another. My mother: always grasping at someone’s body, always opening the door to let people through.
I see the faces of people from this time—“aunts” and “uncles” and “old family friends” that I have never heard from again. I see their mannerisms in the people I know now. I grasp at their bodies; I open my door for them.
I open my mouth, my hands, my legs. I hear: Be careful.
Camille soon became a co-parent, a co-teacher eager to mold me into something new. Each morning Camille brought me outside, told me to watch her as she whacked golf balls into the ravine by her house and said things I needed to know.
“You have to strike with purpose,” she instructed me. My mother—seated on a lawn chair, coffee in hand—hid a smile behind her steaming cup.
Camille had golfed professionally, and I imagined the quiet applause from people in beige clothing as she exerted her strength over and over, grinning and glistening as she cast another ball into the horizon. She forced the cold metal into my hands, the handle bigger than me, and laughed when I could not move my arms right.
“You’ll get there,” she said, smirking at my frustration. I wanted to be older; I wanted to do it all. I wanted to be powerful, to be forceful.
Later, when I was alone, I practiced swinging in the cool, night air until I began to sweat. When the club struck with a solid pop, I heard the people cheer.
“What is this?” I asked, touching the hidden secrets in Camille’s home, some I could know, some I could not. I would find the baggies, the half-opened boxes and ask her “what is it, what?”
“Curiosity killed the cat,” she said, closing drawers and turning me away.
My mother and Camille oscillated between contentment and precarious dissatisfaction, leaving and starting all over again in a perpetual cycle of sweet first-times and welcome-backs. Each return visit my mother and Camille reacquainted themselves, and I examined all of the works-in-progress in Camille’s home, sculptures of stone and crystal and clay next to discarded, gleaming clubs. I imagined my mother and myself among all of these discarded things, a collection curated with expert specificity.
I peeked at the sharp rocks that poked out of the sculptures in her home and asked: “What are these? What is that?”
“Quartz,” she said. “Azurite, Amethyst.” I watched them glitter; I felt their rocky outer cases, dragged my fingertips across the smooth elongated pyramids of color—examining all sides of the lively manifestations of her restlessness. “I can show you,” she said to me, smiling at my interest. “I’ll take you to them.”
The heat always changed them both, swinging them from one state to another. It had been the hottest day of summer when I heard shouting from behind that closed door, and I did not have to hear the words to understand their meaning, to recognize the pattern. Camille strode out of her room, anger turning her brilliant and red as my mother called out, a quality lacing her voice I had yet to hear before. Camille’s eyes found my own questioning gaze. She ignored my mother’s call, disregarded her low-hung head peeking out of the half-opened door.
“Come on,” Camille said, nostrils flared. “Let’s take that trip I promised.”
I remember the way my graceless feet rushed after her, my stocky, small legs hurrying to catch up with her long, powerful strides. In her hand a screwdriver, in my hand a hammer. I heard the sloshing of the water jug she carried, I watched through the harsh sunlight as she raised it to drink. I stepped over the golf balls that had settled at the bottom of the ravine, covered in dust like forgotten bodies. We reached the base of a small mountain; she traced the dark lines in the rock, glittering crystal hiding beneath. She grabbed my wrist and pressed my fingers into the hot stone. Her anger towards my mother seemed to spark against my skin. “You have to find the vein,” she said, watching for my understanding. “You have to strike with purpose.”
Years later, I heard those words as I placed a needle to my skin, still eager to prove something to my teachers.
“Let’s talk about what brought you here,” someone says to the group—and I want to curl back my lip, bare my teeth. I want to bite into the healthy necks of those who ask questions but provide no answers, I want to taste metal.
“Come on,” Camille said. We began our ascent—shards of crystal in a bag hanging off her angled shoulders. My legs had slowed and trembled. In the flat heat of the sun I had tried hard to show Camille how studious I was, striking the rock wall with such purpose over and over that after several blows she paused my swing. “Enough,” she told me, amused as she wiped away the sweat from my flushed forehead. When we left, my legs were still too short, her strides still too long—I couldn’t keep her pace.
“Wait,” I said between breaths, steadying my knees. “Please.”
She paused, then moved closer. “Here,” she beckoned, twisting off the cap of her water jug. She eased my mouth open, offering me refuge as she held my jaw in her grasp. She poured the clear liquid through my lips as I pawed at the cool plastic held above me. I swallowed and tasted the burn, felt it scratch its way down. I coughed up what little I had not swallowed, my throat tightening and seizing up, but she held me still.
“This is a lesson,” she told me, eyes watching as I squirmed in her hold. The sting of alcohol washed over my face, burning my eyes, my nostrils, my sunburnt skin.
“Talk about your first drink,” they ask of me in those group meetings, and I do not say that I have heard this request before. Tell us how you began, people ask, tell us how it all began. All of this self-reflection is more frustrating than helpful, I think. It is presumptuous, I have always said to no one.
I tell the truth. I had my first drink when I was nine, in a ravine, gulping down vodka from a jug. I drank and she watched me, and I do not share how I have searched for that gaze in each person I have encountered since. I do not share what happened after, because it does not matter.
“Leave,” I say to everyone. “I am so sick of you, go away.” I do not finish the meetings. “These are useless,” I say to myself. I check the time, lie through my teeth, I stand at front desks and say things like: “I’ve got kids at home. I’ve got to get home to my kids.” I scream at empty motel rooms, at the white walls of recovery centers. I scream at the faces of exhausted technicians, of exhausted addicts, of my exhausted reflection.
I scream at my mother, slamming the door shut and walking away for good.
Only the small things had changed—streets repaved, stores and restaurants bought, remodeled, and renamed by new owners—but those changes were enough to notice, to make me feel out of place and time. The dry, fragrant air, however, was close enough to memory, and it reaffirmed that the journey had merit. I hadn’t remembered the apartment number, but I remembered the apartment itself—how to find the dead end street.
She was outside when my car pulled up, whacking away on her tiny plot of fake grass as if she had been there since I had left. When the engine sputtered to a stop and the car door shut, she turned my way. There was a moment when nothing happened, and I worried she would not recognize me. Then, Camille smiled, reached down, and picked up her water jug.
“Well, well,” she said, taking a sip. “Look what the cat dragged in.”
It would be a lie if I said I did not think of this meeting often, how it would go, what I would say. “Come in,” she said, taking my hand, and I waited for her to ask why I was here, to say how much I’ve changed, to apologize. I waited to hear myself explain why I had come, who I was looking for. Instead, I looked down at our laced fingers as she led me into her room, a threshold I had never crossed before.
More strange sculptural things, spiraled and swollen like beasts mid-motion, were sitting frozen in the corners of the room. She turned on a light and I looked at her then—saw her through the crinkled skin around her eyes, the deep creases in her tan forehead. I saw her familiar grin, her thinned lips. Her arms seemed strong still despite her age, though the skin there had loosened. She moved forward, grazed past me as she opened a box and pulled out baggies, needles, a lighter, a spoon.
“You’ve gotten older,” Camille said.
“Yes,” I breathed, happy she had noticed. I watched her remove tiny crystals of clouded white and place them on the bedside table. From the drawer she retrieved a hammer and used it to crush them into powder. Then she left it, turning her attention towards the spoon and the lighter. I moved closer, examining the grey powder lined up under the yellow light. I reached out.
“Wait,” she said, voice firm as she moved the lighter’s flame back and forth across the underside of the silver, watching me. “Not yet.”
When she was done I knew because she wrapped a belt around my arm and pulled down my wrist, squeezing tight.
“Do you remember what I told you?” she asked, but I had already placed the needle where it belonged, abandoning my reasons for coming. I struck with purpose and lowered onto the sheets.
Warmth bubbled, thickened and flooded me like molasses, wrapped around me. Oh, my head said, buzzing and sparkling. I rolled my tongue, thick and dense in my mouth—I felt grains, I tasted salt. The bed shifted as she settled next to me, and I felt my eyes sting as her hand grabbed mine. For a while I thought of things to say, but was unable to catch and send any words. I stopped holding onto time.
I was in something close to sleep when she asked: “Are you ready?”
What? My eyelids peeled open. How much time had passed? Camille examined me and asked again: “Are you ready?”
“Oh,” my head said again.
I watched her inhale the pile of dust resting on her fingertip with a sharp intake of breath. She raised me up, heavy and slow, and placed more on her finger, bringing it towards me.
“Now you,” she said. Something in my mind was waiting to be noticed, but instead I strained forward and breathed in deep.
My body seized. My toes curled and my knees knocked together. The honeyed glow that was in me quickly began to blaze and flare far too bright. My muscles gripped my bones tight as my blood and my brain rushed past me. I smelled sulfur. A red heat flashed. Somewhere in the dark I heard rattling, a violent shimmering growing louder and louder. I clutched at her, felt my nails press into flesh.
“What is that?” I asked, straining my eyes open to watch the shapes in the corners.
She laughed. “Don’t you ask any other questions?” I felt fingers at the button of my jeans, but I was still looking for the sound.
“Do you hear it?” I asked again, craning my neck to look around her, searching through the red, flickering lights. “What is that?” She pressed on top of me, her thin body suddenly far too heavy. I could not breathe.
“The cicadas,” Camille said. “They’re here.”
I felt their little bodies crawl inside my veins, scratching away everything they could. My nails were on my own skin now, scraping at the flesh until pale, blistering lines rose. Wait! I gasped. I remembered their hollow skins, their split open shells. I remembered who showed them to me, hands motioning and instructing. A mother is where all this started. A mother was why I was here.
“Mother!” I cried. “Where is my mother?”
Camille’s grin pressed against my temple as I felt fingers inside. “She’s here,” she said, and more tears burned their way out. “Right here.”
The day ends and the children leave. Last goodbyes are said as family members release their hold and go. The children’s fading presence still temper the air, and even I try to hold onto it. I turn my head towards the closing door; breathe the damp, earthy smells that have been allowed across the threshold, green and fresh and bright.
“Talk about why you’re here,” I am asked, and I do not want to, so instead I talk about growing up in the desert—about wearing boxy school uniforms and having sun-bleached hair. I talk about coyotes that slept in the corners of my backyard to avoid the afternoon sun, about my mother catching a tarantula in the kitchen and trapping it in a jar, too afraid to move it outside. I talk about the joke of clean slates, about starting over and over, because it is the only skill I have.
I talk about Camille, her hair, her skin—both sandy and brown like the desert earth. I talk about the sound of her golf club whacking, of her gallon-sized water jug sloshing behind her front door before I ever saw the handle turn, cupping my mother’s hand as I wait to be let inside.
There is nothing good where I am heading.
Natasha Yglesias received a BA with a concentration in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. She is a reader for Post Road Magazine and a Marketing Development Associate for an educational publishing company in San Francisco. You can find her other work in Lockjaw Magazine‘s Vol. II, and Thin Noon Journal’s August 2015 publication. She tweets here: @TashaYglesias.