East Coast

by Jessica Anya Blau


"It's just going to be you and me," my mother said. "Just the two of us."

I smiled, looked at her with my head tilted to one side, and swung my legs back and forth under the dining room chair.

"What are Rikki and Joe gonna do?" I asked.

"They'll be here with Dad."

I didn't ask why I was chosen to take a ten-day trek across the East Coast with my mother. I assumed it was because we were pals. We watched Shirley Temple movies together on Sunday mornings, ate Reese's peanut butter cups after school, and went through a stack of magazines before bed each night: she reading them and me mostly looking at the pictures.

Rikki was my older sister. She was sixteen, anorexic, and suffering from intermittent bouts of depression. Joe was ten, two years younger than me. He was a chess genius, piano prodigy, and undergoing counseling for severe performance anxiety. And I was the middle child; the only family member not in therapy, and completely unremarkable in every way.

The morning that we were leaving, my father came in my room and handed me a paper bag.

"This is for you sweetheart," he said, ducking his head under the top bunk bed so that he could sit next to me on the lower one.

I opened the bag and pulled out a fabric-bound notebook. It was covered in a pinpoint floral print, and at the beginning of the first line of each page was fancy inch-high swirl, the shape of a twisted bobby pin. There were two pens inside the bag, too; one red and one black, ballpoint with a silver clicker on the ends. I put a pen in each hand and clicked them simultaneously.

"It's a travel diary," my dad said. "So you can write down all your adventures." He ran his hand through my hair—that was then the color of wheat—pulled me into him, and kissed me on my freckled forehead.

"I'm going to miss you," he said.

"I'm going to miss you too." I turned and hugged him, my face buried in his scratchy neck, which always smelled fresh and clean, and slightly tangy like the salt air.

My mother and I each wore a dress on the plane. Mine was sapphire-blue with an empire waist and a six-inch hem that my mother sewed in haste the night before our flight. Hers was a long batik sheath that hovered above her ankles. She had on wooden platform shoes with leather straps, and in her ears, poking out from her frizzy home-permed afro, were two silver-dollar sized gold hoop earrings. Her breasts were small, but I could see the tear-drop shaped mounds pressing against the fabric.

"Mom," I whispered in her ear, "you're not wearing a bra."

"Nope, and no underwear either." She winked at me with a lopsided smile. "I didn't even pack them. And what about you?"

"Shhh," I said, and quickly glanced across the aisle to see if anyone had overheard. It was not unusual for my mother to be unpredictable and spontaneous. What was unusual, however, was the electric buzz of happiness that seemed to surround her as if she had caught some sort of happy-flu. I was used to my mother lying on the couch and reading, lying in bed and watching movies, or locked behind her office door with the sound of the electric typewriter endlessly clacking away, letting us know that she should not be bothered. But from the moment we boarded the plane Mom seemed different, as if she herself were flying miles above the ground.

The seat next to us was unoccupied; my mother placed her heavy leather shoulder bag there, slouched and open, so I could dig into whenever I wanted. There were certain things that Mom always had in her purse: yellow Carefree sugarless gum, a box of black licorice drops, lipstick, patchouli oil, and a comb. I could have as much gum or licorice as I wanted, but I was only allowed to chew the gum a half-stick at a time.

"An entire stick is too much for a little mouth," she once said. "You'll look like a cow chewing her cud."

Once the plane was in the air, I pulled my travel diary and a pen from my mother's purse, sat with the book open on my lap and wrote the first entry.

Dear Diary,

Today I am on an airplane with Mom. We are flying to New York City. I am very hungry and they have not give us lunch yet. I will not miss Rikki or Joe because they were bugging me before I left. The stewardess gave me a pin shaped like wings. I was very embarrassed because those pins are for little kids. When I told Mom that I was mad abut the pin she said, "Well, you're a kid." And I said, "I'm almost a teenager, and I don't want to be a kid anymore." And she said, "Well then let's just pretend that we're sisters and you're a midget." And then she laughed, but I didn't laugh because I was still angry about that pin. That's all for now. Love, Jennifer.

The first thing I noticed, as we were waiting for our bags in New York City, was the variety of people; a variety that didn't seem to exist in our small Southern California town.

"What's wrong with that lady?" I asked my mother. She turned and stared at the ostrich shaped woman pacing back and forth in front of the baggage carousel. Her tiny head had small tufts of blond hair poking out like feathers, and she wore a pink tube-top that was slipping down her flat chest so that the edge of one pale dot of a nipple was beginning to peek out. The woman repeated over and over again, "Pretty please, pretty please with sugar on top, pretty please, pretty please with sugar on top…"

Mom pulled her owl-eyed sunglasses out of her purse so that she could stare at the woman without being seen.

"That woman's crazy," Mom laughed, and leaned her head near mine. "There're lots of crazy people in New York. You'll love it."

We took a taxi to midtown, where my parents' friends from college lived. In the back of the cab I stared out the window, leaning in close to my mother, as if what I saw could tear me away from her and suck me out of the cab. I tried to see through the broken boards on the windows of the dilapidated buildings; I thought they housed waifish kids: runaways and children of divorce.

Mom's friends, Dotty and Leon, lived on the fifth floor of a walk-up. The apartment was big with windows all around, but the large buildings surrounding it blocked the sun so that I felt trapped in a permanent shadow.

Leon was a director, working mostly on off-Broadway shows. My father was a director too. That year, he had lead the seventh and eighth graders of Conchita Junior High through the steps of such ambitious productions as "Mame" and "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." My mother refused to attend my father's shows. Once I overheard her through their bedroom door saying, "Look, I'm just not interested in seeing some pissy seventh grader who's never drank a cup of coffee in her life, shuffle across the stage singing 'if I can't take my coffee bread…'" My brother and I would attend all my father's productions. We'd sit in the wings, repeat the actors' lines in whispers, smile and blush whenever the junior high school "stars" spoke to us or asked us questions.

Dotty, like my mother, was a writer. Dotty wrote fiction, most of it unpublished. "She can only work when her head is clear," my mother told me in the cab ride to their house. "And her head is only clear when Leon's out of town. And Len is afraid to leave Manhattan, so she probably hasn't written anything in ten years."

My mother was a reporter for our local paper. Like everyone in town who worked with the public, Mom was somewhat of a celebrity. On the rare occasion that my best friend Amy's dad was home early from work, he would call me into the den where he sat in his corduroy easy-chair, slap the folded "Conchita Sun" against the ottoman and say, "That mother of yours is some wordsmith; she has got the beat of her beat."

Leon picked up our bags and led us down the narrow hallway, which reminded me of the inside of my closet with the light off. He opened the guest room door, walked three steps to the nightstand, pulled a chain a tiny, plastic desk lamp, and illuminated the room. A mass of cockroaches scattered outward across the bed like shattering black glass. I stood frozen with my mouth dropped open as if I had broken my jaw; then I stared up at my mother to see what she thought of our insect-infested sleeping quarters.

She was laughing, "Wow, I forgot all about the cockroaches!"

"Yeah, Leon thinks it's cruel to kill them," Dotty said, tossing a loopy, blond curl behind her ear. "And they don't spread germs anyway."

"I just think that it's a shame to murder anything that's been ingenious enough to survive the evolution of Earth since the time of the dinosaurs," Leon said. I thought he resembled a cockroach, wearing all black, with a skim coating of thin hair smoothed back from his forehead.

"He even leaves food out for them in the kitchen," Dotty said.

Mom laughed some more and said, "It's really great to see you guys."

Dotty ordered pizza for dinner, and we all sat in the living room, which was near empty, with only an orange, stiff couch and a low flat coffee table made from roped-together railroad ties. Leon lit a joint and passed it casually to my mother, holding his arm out, his face turned towards Dotty as he instructed her to open the window. I tried to hold my breath so that none of the smoke would go in me; and looked at my mother, hoping she'd do the same. Instead, she lifted the thin twisted-end to her mouth, and inhaled as if it were her last breath. I spent the evening slouched between my mother and the armrest of the couch, staring out the window that faced a brick wall, and listening to what seemed like an endless string of noise wafting into the apartment.

"Why is everyone honking their horn?" I asked, during a silent moment as the second joint—smoked down to the size and shape of a cockroach—was being passed from my mother to Dotty. Everyone looked at me and laughed; nobody answered. I decided not to speak again, and reminded myself that my practical father would quell any urges my mother may have for marijuana, should she become addicted after this one experience.

The grownups seemed to be speaking in code, twisting their words into sentences that made no sense to me; speaking of a nameless man they called "the husband" and a nameless woman named "the wife". Eventually the drone of their voices fell into a flat hum and lulled me into sleep on the couch. My mother woke me in what seemed like the middle of the night. "Let's go to bed," she said, and she held my hand and dragged me toward the bathroom to brush my teeth. The sounds from outside seemed barely diminished, and I wondered how so many people could stay awake for so long.

"Will the cockroaches bite us?" I asked my mom as she turned on the light and we watched them scatter into unseen cracks and crevices.

"No, don't worry about it," my mother said. Her voice was slow, like a tape recorder with a dying battery.

"Will they come back and crawl all over us when you turn off the light?"

"No, they don't like people."

"Why not?"

"We use too much soap and perfume, the smell of perfume actually makes them nauseous." Mom turned out the light, crawled into the bed beside me, and immediately fell asleep. I lay there with my eyes wide open, staring through the soupy-grey light. All I could think was that I hadn't had a bath in two days, and I wasn't wearing perfume. I imagined thousands of slippery cockroaches smelling my mother's patchouli, taking refuge on my scentless body, and then vomiting.

I don't remember falling asleep, but I do remember waking up in the middle of the night. There was a grunting sound, and then a yell. I sat up in bed and looked down at my mother's face. She was shouting in her sleep. "MOTHER FUCKER," she said. Her eyes were shut, darting back and forth under the closed hoods. I imagine that there were cockroaches in her head, running in circles below the thin skin of her eyelids. "MOTHERFUCKER," she shouted again. I looked toward the door as if it would tell me whether or not Dotty and Len had heard her. My mother turned on her side and continued to sleep in silence. I examined the pillow for roaches before finally lying back down and returning to my own fitful sleep.

We stayed in New York for four days. During that time, Mother, Dotty and Leon smoked twelve joints and had food delivered five times. We went to three museums, five art galleries, and dinner one night in Chinatown—which I thought was so crowded and pungent that I imagined myself holding a giant hose and spritzing away the thick layer of rotted muck that seemed to cling to the sidewalks and buildings.

On the train en route to Boston, I pulled out my diary and wrote:

Dear Diary:

New York was very crowded and messy but exciting. Some people call it the Big Apple, but I m not sure why. I think D and L are a bad influence on Mom; but I'm sure she'll snap back to normal when we get back home. Now we are on our way to Boston because Mom wants to see a Matisse show at the Museum of Fine Arts. More to come later. Love, Jenny.

In Boston, we checked into an old hotel that had perhaps been elegant at one time, but now seemed to be melting and atrophying with the sad ugliness of an aging movie star. The carpet in our room was matted down flat and felt slightly damp all the time, as if it were so oily it could never really dry.

That evening, after tacos in a Happy Jose's, we each lay on our stomachs facing the foot of the bed. Mom was reading The Diary of Anais Nin, and I was watching television. After a few minutes, my mother tossed the book on the floor and went into the bathroom. The door was open, and I looked up and watched her brush her teeth as she stared at herself in the mirror.

"Je-y, co- he-," she suddenly turned and urgently whispered. Her white toothbrush was hanging out of her mouth like a cigarette, and a dollop of foam was dripping down her chin. I rushed into the bathroom, my mother spit into the sink and then handed me a drinking glass. She unwrapped a second glass from its paper cover, pressed the open side against the wall, and pushed her ear against the flat bottom.

"Do you hear the people next door?" she asked. "It sounds like they're planning on robbing a bank."

I gasped and pushed my glass against the wall between the toilet and the sink. My mother's glass was directly above mine, her body hovered over me.

"No, you get off at Cambridge," I heard a low, gravelly man's voice say. "Take the T to Cambridge."

"But I waa waa waa… not in Wellesley… route nine, not the T…," the second voice, also male, seemed to be saying.

"They were talking about guns before," my mother whispered. "Someone was shouting something about shooting the guard."

I listened intently, but all I ever heard were mumbled directions, and an argument about which route they would take. I began to get anxious that they would somehow find out that we were listening and shoot us through the wall.

"Maybe we should go in the other room and shut the bathroom door," I said to my mom.

"You go ahead," she said. "I'll be out in a minute."

I went in the other room, leaving the door open so that I could keep an eye on Mom. She sat on the toilet, placed her elbow on the tank, and leaned the glass up against the wall. I pulled out my diary.

Dear Diary,

We are in Boston now. There are two bank robbers in the room next to us. Mom is listening to them through the wall. I hope she doesn't get shot. In case we are both killed tonight, here are the clues we heard that may lead police to the criminals: route nine, Wellesley, the T, Cambridge. And Mom heard something about shooting a security guard. This has been a very dangerous trip so far, I hope we make it home. Love, Jennifer.

I put the diary down and looked up; my mother was waving her arm, furiously beckoning me into the bathroom. I ran in and picked up the glass from the counter.

"In the drawer," I heard. "Just keep the fucking thing in the drawer."

"They're talking about the gun again," my mother whispered. "The one guy wants to sleep with it under his pillow, but the other one thinks that they should both have access to it, and that he should keep it in the drawer."

I listened for a few minutes longer and never heard mention of a gun. And then, finally, I heard someone say, "Wait a minute, how many bullets did you bring?" I felt dizzy, and nearly dropped the glass on the counter.

"I'm going to bed," I said.

She nodded her head without removing it from the glass, and waved her free had at me to signal "okay."

Read the rest of "East Coast"


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