1. The first time I fell in love, it was with Miki, the first-chair flute player in our high school symphonic band. He wrote me poems and love notes every day, and gave me his class ring to wear despite threats from his flamboyant Hungarian mother about what she would do to him if he lost it. We dated for three months in the spring of my sophomore year before I crushed his heart like a cigarette.
The following spring, when I was sixteen, I fell in love with Joe, a sexy, bad-boy senior whose angular cheekbones and charcoal hair reminded me of Richard Hatch, who played Apollo on Battlestar Galactica. He was cool, capable, charismatic. A trumpet player. Joe was also a huckster, so naturally, I laughed in his face when he asked me to prom. No way a boy so handsome and popular would like me—a goody-goody, a brain—it had to be a joke, and I refused to be the butt of his latest prank.
“Yeah, right,” I shrugged and turned toward assembling my flute, determined to appear uncaring.
It wasn’t until his beaming smile fell into stunned dismay, and the pink carnations he held behind his back slumped forward, that I realized my mistake. My heart seized as his gaze fell, dejected, to the floor. The class clown had made himself vulnerable and I laughed in his face. How cool was I?
After I sputtered my apology and acceptance, Joe gave me a good ribbing. He never let me forget my mistake, not even when he picked me up in his powder blue ’67 Thunderbird for the dance.
2. The first cigarette I ever smoked had been extinguished by an unseen stranger in the sand of a public ashtray. I was sixteen, standing outside of Thunderbird Samaritan Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona.
Squinting against the field of parked cars glinting in the white-hot sun, I never considered who might have smoked the butt—a doctor, a hair-netted cafeteria worker, a patient who managed to sneak out through the service entrance where none of the intake staff would see. Perhaps she leaned against a rolling IV drip for balance, struggling to keep her pale, paper-thin skin protected in the shade. Maybe she was dying, like my mother. Maybe she didn’t give a shit that smoking was killing her because cancer was killing her faster. That’s how I felt—didn’t give a motherfucking shit. Well, no. I hoped the way a coward does that the cigarettes would kill me first so I wouldn’t have to live long enough to watch my mother die.
That afternoon, when I excused myself from her bedside, I tucked matches in the front pocket of my jeans. I fingered them as I disappeared down the cold hallway, into the elevator and out the side exit. I pushed the panic bar with a clunk, relishing the blast of ninety-degree heat on my tanned, goosefleshed arms. That’s the only time the desert heat ever felt good to me, in those first moments when juxtaposed with freezing conditioned air. Once outside, beneath the washed-out glare of a sunny November afternoon, I chose the longest cigarette I could find, its head submerged in the tawny ashtray sand. Of the four available butts, I chose the one with the whitest filter, a KOOL with nearly three inches of minty flavor left to smoke. A flash of sulphur rose as I struck the match, pinning the cigarette between the plump of my lips as I had seen my dad do for many years before he quit.
Heat waves broke across the brown, desiccated foothills in the distance as I cupped my fingers around the flame. I knew I shouldn’t inhale my first time, but I couldn’t resist. A collapse of fume sucked oxygen from the tiny pockets of my lungs, replacing my breath with carbon monoxide. As I drew in the smoke with a shuddering cough, the taste of burnt tires and sand spread thick across my tongue.
3. The last time my mother spoke was a month before she died.
I wasn’t expecting her to say anything—she hadn’t for a week. The doctors explained that her temporal lobe, responsible for speech and coordination, seethed with metastasized breast cancer tumors. She hadn’t been faking the headaches she complained of for months. She hadn’t fallen into depression over the loss of her breast. She wasn’t buckling after all the chemo and radiation treatments had wasted her body into a hairless, yellow-gray mannequin. None of it was as we had presumed. All that time, tumors quietly littered her thoughts like ash; now, they littered ours.
Dr. Mendelssohn said, “It’s like someone spilled a pepper shaker onto your mother’s brain.” Tiny tumors. Thousands of them. Inoperable. The larger they grew, the more headaches they caused, the shakier her writing became, the quieter my mother’s voice until there was nothing left but a pair of dark brown eyes that implored me to understand whatever she motioned at helplessly: the plastic cup of ice chips just out of reach, the woolen blanket that had fallen back, the television program that needed changing, or Petrucelli, a plush brown teddy bear, who had fallen between the guardrail and the mattress. Even between these limited options, I was awful at guessing her needs.
After the tumors took hold, I learned to leave her bedside without expecting a response. “Goodnight. I love you,” I said half-heartedly each night before I drove home from the hospital, so easily resigning hope. One evening, just before Thanksgiving, I leaned in to kiss her cheek and said my line on cue—“Goodnight. I love you,”—before turning to go. It was past ten p.m. and I still had chemistry homework to do before the holiday break.
Suddenly, her hand clasped my wrist, holding me fast with more strength that I guessed she had. She looked up from the shroud of thin pillows and scratchy white hospital sheets, straining as if against an unseen force. She looked into my eyes and parroted my words, “I. Love. You.” Her froggy voice cracked at the word love, the strangest and most beautiful sound. Tears dripped from my eyes onto the cotton blanket as I fell into her chest, my body apologizing for what I couldn’t admit I had done—dismissed her as if she were already dead.
I love you. These words were the last she ever spoke, and she said them to me.
4. As my mother lay dying, my affinity for smoking grew. Maybe it was my asthma, which admittedly made smoking an even stupider choice, or maybe everyone experienced those romantic head rushes when their lungs and brain were deprived of oxygen. The dizziness erased the pain, if only for a few moments.
On the way out of the hospital each day, I’d scavenge the best butts from the ashtray at the side entrance and save them to chain smoke, one after another, within the confines of our xeriscaped backyard where my father would never smell them. Whenever my father left the house, I’d rush outside to light up and dance loopy circles in the path around the scorching hot gravel in our backyard, stepping quickly to avoid burning my bare feet. Each time I inhaled, I imagined that I was frying away my lung tissue, and perhaps my life, breath by breath.
5. After a month in the hospital, I had become more or less accustomed to the icy air, which turned my mother’s smooth olive skin flaky and hard—skin so cold the edges were tinged in blue. The synthetic air seemed to settle into her bones like freezing fog, weighing down her wasted limbs to the mechanical bed.
Underneath her velour robe from home, my mother’s body was covered only in a thin cotton hospital gown with small blue flowers. Considering the circumstances, the pattern’s quaintness, like country draperies, was ridiculous. The gown fastened with three flimsy cotton ties, not remotely modest, the way she would prefer. Such as it was, the gown’s wholly inadequate protection could be easily stripped off by strangers on a whim, and there were always white-coated strangers coming at her with whims—to drain and check and monitor and draw and inject and measure—so much so that my mother’s will, if she still had one, was pointless. More pointless, though, were the violations and inconveniences that no healthy person would tolerate. In the end, what would all this checking and monitoring accomplish? Down deep, we knew, and she knew, that all of these measures were futile. Give up, her body pleaded, but she couldn’t, and we couldn’t, either.
There to decorate her pointless efforts of survival were tables of pastel greeting cards that her barely-focused eyes could not read, and colorful get-well balloons that she could not reach, and poinsettias because it was Christmas, and roses because they were expensive (and thus signified caring), and white carnations because they were cheerful (and cheap), and the sandy brown velveteen bear who she had inexplicably named Petrucelli. For the duration of her stay, he remained tucked where I used to lay, inside the crook of her arm.
6. The last night we spent at Thunderbird Samaritan, when I needed them most, there were no cigarette butts to pilfer. While I was generally selective as far as used cigarettes went, avoiding the ones that bore a yellow-brown ring of tar on the filter, I would have taken anything that night. The maintenance crew must have just come by because the ashtray was completely empty. There wasn’t even a spare butt lying on the ground.
On the way home, my desperation birthed an idea. My dad was back at the hospital signing paperwork to turn over my mother’s body to the funeral home while I pulled into the J.B.’s parking lot at 43rd Avenue and Bell Road. I remembered that there was a cigarette vending machine in the lobby vestibule, which was unattended except for people walking through on their way in and out. What if someone catches me? the A-student in me wondered as I scavenged every coin I could find in the dusty crevices of my old Chevy pick-up. My blood beat thick through my veins, like I was already in trouble. My darker side, the one who needed a cigarette bad, wasn’t sure she really cared. Eventually, that bolder and more desperate version of me exited the truck and pulled the chickenshit part with her.
From then on until I was eighteen, the coin-operated machine would serve as my drug dealer, providing me with the luxury of unsmoked packs of Marlboro 100s for $2.25 whenever I wanted. Yet, even with the vending machine supply, sneaking smokes never lost its allure. I stole them from my Aunt Ellen when she visited and bummed them from random people smoking outside the movie theater where I worked part-time—and, yes, I still snuck a few from public ashtrays whenever I could find them. There was just something about lighting the used ones, knowing they had been gripped between a stranger’s lips, that made them dirtier and more dangerous—which was exactly how I felt.
7. The first time I had sex was after school at Joe’s house while his parents were at work. I was sixteen. Afterwards, I drove home and immediately phoned my best friend, Jackie, with astonished disappointment. “THIS is what they were talking about?!” I demanded, referring to the numerous warnings I had received from my parents, priests, after-school TV specials and every biology teacher I had since fifth grade. “THAT’s it?! THAT is what we’ve been so afraid of?!” Jackie chuckled as I ranted. She had come to this conclusion months earlier.
For all its renown, sex in reality was weird and uncomfortable—yet I was inexplicably compelled to try it again and again. Why did everyone I know seem crazy to do it? Why did I? A couple of times a week, Joe took me by the hand and led me into the cool dark of his bedroom, the walls hanging purple in the dim. He had lined his bedroom window with empty Dr. Pepper cans to keep out the relentless desert heat. Because of this, I rarely saw his room in anything but shade, which was fine because I was too shy to stand naked in the light or look at Joe undressed. Each afternoon was the same: the silhouette of his Tandy computer standing guard over dirty laundry in small heaps on the floor. His sheets, cool to the touch as I slipped between them, shielded us from looking at each other’s naked bodies—or, at least, they shielded me. In the end, all I could see was his white grin floating in the darkness.
Sex was so benign a physical act in a certain way; a part of one person disappeared inside another, nothing to see. Maybe its addictive underwhelm was its magic. I kept wondering when the moaning explosions that happened on television would happen to me. It was all one big biological puzzle, one piece aching to nestle inside the other—voila! Inside that Bermuda triangle of insatiable hunger, I felt like I was falling into something massive that I couldn’t figure out, even as smart as I was. It was like trying to understand, to really comprehend, that my mother was dead, and that I would never talk with her again. Death and sex all tumbled together with no one to guide me through either world; the girl I had been—the goody-goody A-student, the writer, the nerd, the flautist, the bespectacled girl with a book in her nose, the scientist, the perfectionist—seemed like a faraway character I had conjured for a story.
After having sex dozens of times, I still wasn’t sure I knew what it meant: could my eyes now discern good from evil? Each time Joe and I did it, I felt the question implant and twist inside me like cholla cactus, its barbs gnawing a ruddy irritation beneath my skin. Maybe if I could figure out how to have an orgasm, everything would make sense. But I had no language to say that I desired pleasure, or that I needed and deserved Joe’s help to find it. I couldn’t even discern if what we were doing was even good; he seemed to enjoy it and I appeared eager yet puzzled, I think.
His answer to my confusion, each time that I stood to put on my clothes, reluctant to return to the empty house that awaited, was always, Come back to bed; let’s do it again. Most days, I relented even though I was befuddled and sore, falling into his firm, hairless boy-chest as I had fallen into my mother’s embrace. His skin, sweaty with effort, pressed against mine, closer than close, which was its own reward.
On the drive home, I savored the flames that licked my fingertips as I struck the match to light up, inhaling a sweeter, darker sin.
8. The last time I saw my mother, we lowered her into the ground. It was snowing in the desert.
9. The first time my heart broke was December 18, 1990, the day my mother died. The second was June 18, 1991, the day that Joe dumped me. I was sixteen. He said that he didn’t know how to deal with my consuming sadness over the loss of my mother, the very loss that he had wanted to know all about when we first started dating.
Joe confessed this to me the day after I returned home from a trip to Michigan. I had been away visiting my Uncle Buddy—Uncle Buddy, who I had last seen crying under our Christmas tree. I couldn’t get the image out of my mind, the multi-colored twinkle lights dancing spots of green and blue and orange on his wet face. My father and I had come home from the hospital to find him, broken, in the dark. The next day, he changed his plane ticket and flew home. He couldn’t wait around to watch his baby sister die; even at sixteen, I got that. So he went home to Detroit where he could pretend her death wasn’t happening and, six months later, my dad and I flew back east to visit him for a week.
Of course, it wasn’t just my absence or sadness that drove Joe away. That was a fucking lie. A few days after he dumped me, a mutual friend admitted that Joe’s ex-girlfriend, Trisha, had come around to see him while I was away. Joe had lamented about what a kid I was, hinting that it would be nice to be with someone who wasn’t still trapped in high school.
Unlike me, Trisha was the type of girl who liked to hang out on the sidelines for hours to watch Joe practice, something I had always begged off. Deep down, I feared that I didn’t belong with his cool guy whose friends might ask me to try a handstand or a backflip, or something else I couldn’t do. Turns out, Trisha had been watching us from the sidelines the whole time, biding her time.
I wrote Joe a letter each day that I was in Michigan, missing him terribly with every obsessive teenage brain cell; he would receive my missives for a week after he dumped me. It was the tiniest slice of revenge that I could cling to.
10. After my dad left for work on Saturdays, I had my mother all to myself growing up. Each week at 6:30 am, I listened from bed for the thud of the front door closing and my father’s red Firebird Trans-Am turning over before he backed out of the driveway. I waited for the grind of shifting gears and the rumble of his engine disappearing down the block, the signal that it was safe to rise from bed.
As a child, I never felt such joy as I did upon tiptoeing down the hall and slipping beneath the sheets of my parents’ bed, spooning my mother as she snoozed. I thrilled at cleaving to her body, feeling her skin on my skin, the warmth and form of her hips, her shoulders, the mama bird turned nest, her embrace like swallowing sunlight. Nothing separated us, certainly not privacy—her body was mine like all children’s mothers’ bodies belong to them. She carried me, delivered me, made my cells from hers. We were not two beings but one, connected by the mystery of life that we shared from the moment I quickened inside her. The only thing she ever hesitated to let me touch was the plastic catheter running into her aorta, the tube that delivered liquid poison directly into her bloodstream.
We would lay there, waking up slowly in each other’s arms, and make a list of what we planned to do that day: go to the library and piano lessons, run errands, make dinner. Snuggling into each other like spoons, I’d weave her fingers into mine, contemplating the creases in her skin, the freckles on her arm, the softness of her palms, the whorls of her fingertips. I examined her body like she was a rare species. Knowing that my father ruled their bed, that he would have driven me from it had he been there, made these stolen moments even sweeter. Her body-warmth, the lull of love and loving, the sense that no one else on earth knew us better than we knew each other, made it hard to rise, despite everything we were excited to do.
It wasn’t until I lay in Joe’s arms, in Joe’s bed, that I had anything to compare Saturday mornings to. My mother was gone by then, of course, but that heavy ache to linger, our hands enmeshed, feeling like we owned a piece of each other—that was love.
11. After Joe and I slept together the first time, it became harder and harder to say goodbye. Every date ended with the intense undertow that only two teenagers in love can feel, our thoughts anchored by the lies we told our parents and the wild rapids of hormones we forged. We were nearly caught by his folks several times, the magnetic call of laying entwined in his bed stronger than our fear of punishment. Resting skin against skin was like returning to a home that I thought had been permanently destroyed.
One afternoon, we conjured the crazy idea of telling our parents that we were having sex with the hopes that they’d let us sleep over at each other’s houses, like a sanctioned Romeo and Juliet slumber party. In the end, Joe’s mom discovered a condom he had forgotten to flush, which precipitated a call to my father, who was furious to learn that his little girl was no longer so.
“Chill out,” I shouted as he listed each of my privileges that he was revoking. “It’s no big deal.”
“It’s a very big deal, young lady.” He said, grabbed my arm as I tried to stomp away. “You think you’re going to college if you get pregnant? Make no mistake. I care about you and I’m not going to let you ruin your life.”
“You don’t care about me! You don’t know anything,” I sneered, trying to pull my arm away. “I can do whatever I want. You can’t stop me. This is my life.”
He chuckled in a way that told me I should run. “You are dead wrong about that, missy,” he growled, clenching my arm to bring me close to his reddened face. I tried, unsuccessfully, to wrench my arm away. “Get this through your thick skull. I control everything you do,” he spat as I squirmed, the skin of my bicep burning as my flesh twisted in his grasp. “As far as I’m concerned you aren’t going anywhere unless I allow it. You’ll go to school. You’ll go to work—if you’re lucky—and you’ll come home. So, go ahead and think long and hard about that in your goddamned room.”
He flung me across the dining room to make his point. I scampered off to my bedroom where I threw the door shut, cowering on my bed I as heard him thunder down the hall after me. “We don’t slam doors in this house, young lady,” he barked, bursting into my room, the door vibrating after he slammed it open against the wall. “I swear, you push me one step farther and I’ll take the whole goddamned thing off its hinges.”
I still wonder what my mother would have said.
12. The last time I saw Joe was the afternoon he broke up with me. He had graduated earlier that June and was planning to move to Las Vegas in August. After he left, I fell against the front door of our house, my ear pressed to it, listening to the throaty grumble of his Thunderbird idle in front of our ranch-style brick house. The summer heat beat through from the other side, fevering my cheek.
I couldn’t meet Joe’s eyes when he said that he didn’t want to date me anymore; I could only look down, noting that his hands were shaking as he crouched before me on the tan carpet. He babbled that he was sorry in the lame way that boys do when they know they’ve fucked up. He insisted that he didn’t mean to hurt me, that he still loved me and wanted to be friends. It’s just that he needed someone who wasn’t sad all the time.
I wanted to beg him to stay but no words came out. He tried to embrace me as I stood limply. Finally, he left, wiping tears from his eyes. All I could do was close the door behind him. I listened as the engine caught, noting that he didn’t leave right away. Was he reconsidering? I waited for him to return and take it all back, but the Thunderbird’s rumble eventually moved on, just as my dad’s Trans-AM had all those Saturday mornings. At sixteen, the throaty exits of classic cars seemed linked to the passings of men out of my life.
That summer, as June melted into July, then August, I kept listening for the sound of Joe’s Thunderbird turning into our cul-de-sac. Even in September, though I knew he had moved out of state, the rumble of a car engine still drew me to the front window. I’d dash to the edge of the sofa, my heart pounding, hold back the tan organza curtains with trembling fingertips, my nose pressed to the glass as my eyes feverishly sought the image of his car rounding the corner.
He never did come back.
13. The ironic thing is, my parents had no common interests besides arguing with each other in general or arguing about me specifically. They didn’t travel or play sports. They didn’t share recreational activities. They rarely ate out or went to concerts or movies—those were things my mom and I did, our secret fun. Yet, every so often, my parents disappeared into the master bedroom and shut the door for a long time. It was their only shared activity, and yet another opportunity for me to come between them.
Once I realized the bedroom door was not only closed but locked, I’d sit against it from the beige hallway, listening to the mysterious muffled sounds coming from within. Though the noises were unintelligible to my virgin ears, my body tingled with the knowledge that something was up. Eventually I would call out, “What are you doing in there?!”
“Go away!” my father would yell. My mother always remained silent, never admitted by her voice that she was in there, too.
“Can I come in?” I’d ask plaintively. I was lonely and tired of amusing myself with television and books, the kind of only-child perdition that my friends with siblings dreamed of.
“No! Can’t you just leave your mother and I in peace?!”
“But I’m bored,” I’d complain, rattling the door handle. “Please, can I come in?”
“No! Get the hell out of here!” At my father’s irritation, an impish smile spread across my lips. I kept knocking, “Helllloooooo?” until I heard the whoosh of sheets thrown back, his heavy feet padding across the carpet and threats increasing in volume near the door, which sent me running.
It wasn’t until my mother was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer that we began to do anything as a family. We drove her 1979 maroon Grand Prix to Wickenburg to pick apples, lit candles in the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona, shopped for knickknacks in the quaint old town of Tlaquepaque and met up with my godmother for a weekend in Las Vegas where Joe would later work as a pit boss. My mother had traveled before married; she also bowled, skied and went out regularly with friends, all things that she gave up once she settled down with my father. It all felt like too little too late.
Growing up, I didn’t realize that it wasn’t so much marriage in general as marriage to my father in particular that changed my mother’s life. He lured her with trips to Chicago and New Orleans for their engagement and honeymoon, but after they wed, the adventures stopped. It was always unclear to me what kept them together—a house, a bed, a child, and religion, I suppose—the trappings of life that passed for marriage before my generation came along and demanded more. Maybe the fact that my mother and I had each other made it work; together, we tiptoed hand-in-hand around my father’s uncured temper. We were a team.
I didn’t realize until far later how strongly the imprint of my father’s outbursts and shaming physical behavior, like bending me over for spankings or holding me down on the carpet with his brute force, drew my attraction to certain men. It took a therapist to point it out. “Your father, no matter how much you think you don’t want him, is the figure your eyes are set to filter for,” she said. “Watching your mother stay with him told you what you should do.”
She was right. My cravings for punishing love ran so deep as to be instinctual; I grew up falling hard and fast for damaged men because what was love if not pain? None of these relationships ever worked out, of course, but I kept beginning new ones—different wrapper, same candy—without ever questioning the attraction. And I thought cigarettes were hard to kick.
14. The ironic thing is, my high school English teacher, Jeannie Sabrack, had called it a year before it happened.
Mrs. Sabrack was one of those teachers who everyone thought was cool. For starters, she smoked on her breaks and she wore off-the-shoulder tops and stacked bracelets up her tan arms. Most of all, she treated us like confidantes, giving us the straight dope after the bell rang and the doors were closed. We called her advice Sabrack’s Words to Live By, and damn it, if she wasn’t always right.
Some days, when she was feeling particularly feisty, Mrs. Sabrack would sweep into class, toss aside her copy of Madame Bovary or whatever we were reading, and launch into a life lesson that our parents would never admit. “Write this down,” she drawled one afternoon in the middle of Macbeth, “because it’s going to come up in your lives, young people, I promise you that: If they’ve done it to one, they’ll do it to you.” To make her point, she repeated it, speaking as ominously as the three witches while she pounded her desk for emphasis: “If they’ve done it to one. They’ll. Do. It. To. You.”
That fall, as tiny tumors grew inside my mother’s brain, we read Romeo and Juliet. After we finished Act 3, Mrs. Sabrack sighed and said, “Look, ladies of the class, I’m about to let you in on a little secret. All of this hoo-ha we adults make about sex...” She trailed off mysteriously. Each of us leaned forward in our seats, even the boys. “You’re going to build up this moment in your mind, and when it happens, you’re going to say, THAT was it? THAT is what everyone has been having heart attacks over?”
It was only after I hung up with Jackie the following spring, having spoken those exact words to her, that I realized Mrs. Sabrack, like the witches, had foreseen it all. As for her other prediction, Joe dumped me a month later for his ex-girlfriend, Trisha—who he had broken up with the year before.
15. The ironic thing is, my dad and I were never friends. For sixteen years, we had been adversaries, or at the minimum, uneasy tribesmen, always in competition for my mother’s love. Now, we were alone together with no buffer. This is why, after my mother was dead a mere four months, my dad took up with the first woman who asked him out. After he and Sandy began dating, I saw him less and less, except when he came home for clean clothes or the occasional dinner when she was busy.
The day that Joe dumped me, my dad was in his room with the door closed taking a nap. He didn’t see me leap into Joe’s arms when I opened the front door; he didn’t see Joe shake with nervousness or hear him say, I’m sorry, when he broke my heart; he didn’t see me crumple to the floor, too shocked to cry after Joe left. He wasn’t there to notice that I was living my mother’s funeral all over again.
Despite what my parents’ friends insisted, not crying over my mother’s death wasn’t a sign I was strong. I just couldn’t feel anything. After the mass, as my grandmother led me out of church, her arm around my shoulders, as a receiving line of adults paused to praise my so-called stoicism—the thick-ankled ladies in black sack dresses, the business men in dark, ironed church clothes—how could these idiots not realize that it’s normal for a child who has lost her mother to cry?
I hadn’t imagined then that I could feel that way again. After Joe left, I don’t know how long I lay there on the floor, my head against our front door. Hours, it would seem, because afternoon became early evening. Still, I couldn’t move, couldn’t cry. My father finally emerged from his bedroom to find me there, not so much asleep as catatonic. He roused me more gently than I expected, asked what was wrong.
Where was Joe? I didn’t know.
Could I stand? No. Talk? No.
My legs were jelly. They had fallen asleep from laying sprawled for so long. In a momentary fit, I turned to punch the wall as he pulled me upright—maybe I could feel that?—but I couldn’t sense any pain, not even in my raw, reddened knuckles. As I curled back to take another strike, my dad held my hand so I wouldn’t do it again.
“What happened?” he wanted to know. I looked into his brown eyes, kinder than I had ever seen them, and shrugged, gazing blankly. “What can I do, Dee?” I couldn’t remember a time when he had ever asked me that.
In response, I grabbed my head and rocked back and forth like a lunatic. I wanted to hit something, tear something, smash something—scream—but I couldn’t fathom destroying my mother’s house in a tantrum. Good girls don’t make a scene.
“Do you want to go somewhere?” he asked finally. I could tell he was at a loss.
Yes, I wanted to move. I had to get out of there.
It was late. Dark. I didn’t care. I just had to get out.
“Let’s get out of here, then,” my dad said.
I couldn’t believe it. He wasn’t telling me to pull myself together or to shut up and go to my room. Wasn’t telling me to buck up, that I should accept that life is hard and unfair. Looking back, I still can’t say why he was so kind in that moment—maybe it was my silence, my inability to defy him, that allowed his pity to emerge.
It was the only night he skipped seeing Sandy in favor of me. He grabbed his keys and took my hand as if I was a toddler just learning to walk. His fingers, still rough from decades of working as a mechanic, pulled me outside. We had no route, no destination. He gave me the gift of not having to say a thing. We just walked, hard and fast, into the chilly dark of the desert, the stars shining against the black universe brighter than I imagined possible.
I can still recall the feel of his calloused hands, abrasive yet tender, gripping mine.
16. The ironic thing is, Joe and I never had sex on prom night like all of our friends did. We barely knew each other then and, in my mind, I was still my mother’s good girl. It finally happened after a month of dating, of staying up late talking on the phone, necking in the back seat of his Thunderbird, sharing our deepest fears and secrets for hours after school, holding hands and taking long hikes into the nearby desert foothills where he asked me to tell him about losing my mom. He wanted to know what it was like. Most of my friends had been too polite to ask, fearing that they’d hurt me; being offered permission to talk about my mother was the greatest tenderness.
Besides my best friend, Joe was the only one who I told in detail how awful it was, especially the last night: my nose in the geometry book, too busy to watch my mother’s last breaths because I had been watching her expire, bit by bit, for months. No one wants to admit such selfishness, but watching someone die slowly, even if it’s someone you love, is boring.
That night, as always, it was freezing cold in my mother’s hospital room. I was curled up in an uncomfortable wooden side chair with a textbook spread across my lap. Suddenly, my dad touched my foot. “She’s gone,” he said. Neither of us knew how long it had been—a few minutes or a quarter hour—there was no sound on her monitors because the nurses had turned them off when she went into a coma. The sound of her death was silence, silver and icy. Her flesh, when I felt it, was immovable. A prickle of leg hairs had pushed through her skin like hoary frost in one final mimic of life. Pools of coagulated blood appeared as blue blotches on her arms.
She’s gone, he whispered again, the lamest capstone to a person’s life.
These are the memories Joe and I made love beneath. The dark of his bedroom was my only retreat from the scalding reality that awaited me outside in the desert. It took me years to see that I had left a piece of myself behind in his bed, a part of me that never wanted to wake. A shattered girl with long curly strawberry brown hair walked in, the shades pulled against the light, and slipped beneath the sheets to spoon in the dark with the people she loved, never to rise again.
What I didn’t know then is that life would be a constant pursuit and retreat from my basest humanity: the long, bright desert of love, sex, drugs and death. Big deaths and little deaths. Love, real love, I would discover, was a drug. Death, too, a drug. And, finally—sex, in all its heart-rending glory, the biggest roller coaster of all. Every time I sought an orgasm, I flirted with a larger surrender, the flutter of dying just enough to appreciate living, which is why, I ultimately decided, the human race chases sex like there’s no tomorrow. Part of us hopes there isn’t. The threat of our own mortality breeds the desire to conquer and kill, to make more of ourselves, to fuck and to fuck each other over—and to fucking live in spite of every force that insists we will, inevitably, die.
The day we buried my mother, Phoenix witnessed a freak snow storm. Before my father and I left for her funeral mass, I scooped a handful of brittle white crystals into a plastic bag that I put into the freezer, an attempt to save yet another thing that couldn’t be.
As we left the church after my mother’s funeral mass, I found that I couldn’t cry. My eyes were dry and frozen as we lowered my mother into the ground. Her friends lay their hands on me, praising my strength, not realizing how much I wished that I could break down, but something inside wouldn’t let me. As we walked into the slashes of sunlight on the rolling green cemetery grass, I saw pockets of snow hiding in the scant shade at the base of the palm trees and paloverdes, melting clumps of white gathered like faulty memories. I wanted a cigarette so goddamned bad.
Upon returning home from the funeral, I fell ill with a high fever that left me bedridden for weeks. People ate cake and drank coffee in our living room as I, delirious in bed, dreamed of chasing my mother, the flash of her curly brown hair disappearing around corners, echoes of Mom! as I shrieked her name, but she never stopped, never turned around even as my fingers brushed the edges of her clothes, her body that I knew so well just out of reach. I recall cracks of light from the hallway as my bedroom door opened and closed when people came to check on me—my grandmother, my aunt—but I didn’t bother raising my head. I was so sick that I missed Christmas, too. My room remained dark as I slept and slept with the shade down, my room purple with the same gloom that I would find at Joe’s, not knowing day from night.
At some point, someone tucked Petrucelli into the crook of my arm. That is where I found him in the rare, dizzying moments when I came to during fever breaks. I nestled my face into his tawny fur, searching for her smell and wishing that my mother was at my bedside as she had always been before. Each time I remembered that she was gone, I lowered myself back into the peaceful oblivion of exhaustion, the heavy rest of illness that is as close to death as I was able to come then, no matter how many cigarettes I smoked.
Like everything else, even that was temporary.