by Jessica Anya Blau
My mother was depressed. It was not a temporary state in an otherwise happy life. It was the way she was. On occasion, she had small bursts of joy: tiny fires of happiness that my sister and I would desperately fan, in the hope that they would engulf her. But they never did. She always lapsed into her wilted way, her eyes roaming her head in inarticulate thought, her body hanging as if it were saturated from a heavy rain.
The only thing in our weekly routine that seemed to pull my mother into a conscious presence motivating her to shower and get dressed was taking my sister and me to ballet class. While we danced, she would stand outside the studio doors, her posture erect and sure, watching us alternately in our individual classes. With my mother's alert gaze on me as I sashayed across the floor, I actually felt that she loved me.
The last year I studied ballet, in 1973, I was nine, Risa was thirteen, and both my parents were thirty-five. Mom was the most beautiful woman at the ballet school, or so I thought. The other mothers seemed worn-out and dumpy, wearing wigs that looked like they were put on backwards and polyester pantsuits with a thick seam down the front of each leg. But my mother looked more like an older sister. She had long brown hair, and skin as smooth and shiny as a porcelain dish. The only make-up she ever wore was lipstick. She'd put it on while she was driving in the car, holding the steering wheel with one hand while she seamlessly slid the glossy paste over her lipswithout even looking in the mirror.
"How can you do that without looking at yourself?" I asked her once.
"It's a grown-up thing," she said. "When you're grown up you'll be able to do it too."
That was her answer to everything. It was the same "thing" that allowed her to pick up a frying pan without an oven mitt, eat ice-cream for breakfast, stay up later than me, and sometimes spend weeks in her tattered, chenille robe, a half cigarette burning lonesomely in the ashtray, abandoned for the full cigarette dangling from her mouth.
One Saturday, in the middle of the summer, Dad stood at the doorway of my room and said, "Jessie, are you ready for ballet?"
"Almost. Why?" I asked.
"I'm taking you," he said. "Because your mother doesn't feel well."
"What's wrong with her?"
"She's not well, that's all, just not well."
Risa tiptoed down the hall toward Dad. Her satin toe shoes were bound around her ankles; her body was long and smooth like stretched taffy.
"Do you know how to get there?" Risa asked.
"Of course I know how to get there. What do you think I don't know my way around town?"
"But you've never been there," Risa said.
"I know where your class is, it's at your ballet school. Now don't worry, just get ready and let's go."
I pulled on my black leotard that stuck to my slightly damp skin and exposed my protruding stomach.
My sister and I hopped into the backseat of the Toyota Corolla station wagon. It was blue, and had a breadbox sized dent on the front right side where my mother had driven into a neighbor's mailbox the week before. Risa and I laughed about the accident at the time. We hated our neighbors. They shot us scornful glances and made snide remarks about the field of weeds and grass that was growing in the never-mowed front lawn.
"Tell us again what Mrs. McFarley said when she came out and saw her mailbox under the car?" Risa asked Dad as he zoomed past the new McFarley mailbox. It was red with white trim, painted like a miniature barn, and there was a tiny, metal American flag that they would raise whenever there was mail to be picked up.
"NO," my father snapped. "That's enough. No more talk about the McFarley mailbox."
"Don't have a cow," Risa said.
At ballet, Risa and I were rushed into separate studios. She was in the room with the taller girls with narrow sinewy bodies, flat as paper from their necks to their ankles. They wore their hair pulled tight into neat buns on the backs of their heads. I thought they were professionals because they looked so serious when they danced, staring at themselves in the mirror with an almost trance-like rapture.
My class held the smaller girls, all about my age, with hair that was often pushed behind over-sized ears, or in a loose ponytail held together with a pink rubber band taken from that morning's newspaper. We never looked at ourselves in the mirror; instead our eyes held stead on Miss Molina as she pranced around the room, shouting each step in a trilling, nasally voice, over music that was turned up just loud enough to obscure half of what she said.
Every time I passed the open studio door, I glanced up to see if Dad was watching. Unlike my mother, he wasn't standing in the frame of the door, nodding his head with the music and whispering the steps along with Miss Molina. Instead he sat on the low, tapestry-upholstered couch, chatting with the women on either side of him, a folded newspaper on his lap. When class was over, Risa and I silently waited for my father. I was sitting next to Dad, leaning my head into his warm, stiff chest. Risa was tip-toeing around the room, and Dad was finishing a conversation with a woman who frequently patted him on the forearm as she made a point, and hushed her whining toddler so that my father could complete his sentences.
After ballet, Dad took us out to lunch. He told us we could go anywhere we wanted, except to a Mexican restaurant because he hated Mexican food. Risa decided that we should go to The Copper Coffee Pot. Since she was older, I took all her decisions to be the best and rarely disagreed. Risa had a salad that was heavy and wet from blue-cheese dressing, and I had a grilled cheese sandwich with french fries. Dad ate a corned beef sandwich, and he ordered a cream soda for each of us because he liked cream soda so much. He thought if we were exposed to it enough, we eventually would love it too.
We ate quickly, rarely speaking or looking up from our thick-edged white plates. At the time, going out to lunch was a treat reserved for birthdays or outings with houseguests. But on that day, lunch felt like an apology for the absence of Mom.
In the car, on the way home from lunch, Dad decided to run some errands. Risa and I tagged along patiently, abandoning for the day our usual whiny appeals to go home. We picked up photographs at the camera store and Risa's asthma medicine at the pharmacy. Then we went to the hardware store where we spent two hours wandering from aisle to aisle while Dad examined gadgets and power tools, reading instructions on boxes, and then returning each item to its shelf. Finally, we lined up at a checkout stand, behind the men with shopping carts full of hoses, saw blades, and grass seed sowers. Dad had a single, shiny bolt in his hand, which he paid for using only the change in his pocket.
Driving away from the hardware store, Risa and I started singing the theme song from "Billy Jack." Dad sang along with us. He had learned the words after hearing us sing it around the house. He could never carry a tune, and he always sounded more like he was dovening than singing. But it was fun to have him sing with us, and for a moment, as we were belting out the chorus, we all seemed to forget that Mom was home, "not feeling well."
When we turned up the cul-de-sac, everyone stopped singing. Dad glided the car gently past the McFarley mailbox, into our smooth concrete driveway with the black and sepia stained blots made from leaking oil. I ran to the house, leaving the car door hanging open, and rested my hand on the baseball sized brass knob while I waited for Risa who was gathering our ballet bags and sweaters from the way-back. Dad was loading up trash from the floor of the car into an empty, old McDonalds bag. "Hurry," I shouted. Risa caught up to me and I opened the door, stepping in before her. The lights were off and the thick, flax drapes were pulled shut; it was dark like early evening, in spite of the glaring midday sun. The air seemed heavy and stale, like the inside of a car with windows that wouldn't open.
"Mom," I called. "Mom, are you here?"
Risa went upstairs to put her things away in their tidy predetermined spots in her bedroom.
"Mom " I wandered into the kitchen, and then searched the rest of the first floor.
"Mom!" I said loudly, as I marched up the stairs. My sister was practicing pirouettes with a Donny Osmond record playing in the background. Her door was open, and I thought she looked picture-perfect, like a wind-up ballerina in a toy box. I glanced into my room. Risa had deposited my ballet bag and sweater on the heap of clothes, the plastic Barbie van, and other toys that lay in the center of the floor.
"Mo-om," I yelled. I put my palm against the knotty oak door to her bedroom, then pushed it open.
My mother was lying on the bed, her body twisted like a dishrag. One leg was hanging lifelessly off the bed, one hip was raisedtilted to the side like a small hilland her shoulders lay flat and square. Her face was contorted and foamy; her mouth was open, black and ragged looking, like burnt toast with crumbs of white teeth. There was vomit on the bed, mixed with blood, foamy pink and white. It reminded me of swirled cherry-vanilla ice cream. And embedded in my mother's right hand, stuck to it perhaps with burnt skin, was a bottle of Liquid Drano.
I opened my mouth, but no words came out. I gasped and tried to push out my sister's name. And then a sound emerged. Perhaps I said Risa, perhaps I said Mom; I don't really know. Risa ran into the room, screamed, then picked up the phone. She pushed a wobbly index finger into the zero hole on the dial, then spun the plastic disc around its longest rotation. "Something happened to my mother," she said. "Send an ambulance, something happened to my mother." Risa gave the address to the operator, then commanded me to go downstairs to fetch our father. When Dad and I returned we found Risa pouring a glass of water down the open hole that had been my mother's mouth. Dad collapsed to his knees like a folding chair. He rubbed his face into his hands and rocked back and forth, saying over and over again, "We should've come straight home " Risa held Mom's head in her hands and wept while I stood frozen in the center of the bedroom, listening to a screaming ambulance approach from the distance, and thinking how odd it was to know that its siren wailed for my mother.
Mom didn't die. She burned out her insidesthe cavern of her mouth, her esophagus, part of her stomachbut she didn't die. For seven weeks she lay in a hospital bed, a tube going into her stomach for food, IV's in her arms, a bi-hourly check by hospital staff, and a daily visit from the psychiatrist to make sure she wouldn't kill herself. I could never figure out what went on when Mom's psychiatrist visited, for as soon as she had regained consciousness she became a voluntary mute, as well as what I imagined to be voluntarily deaf.
Lying in the hospital, Mom began to age and disintegrate. Her eyes strained to roam beyond their sockets, her arms quivered in a palsied shake, and deep ridges were suddenly etched into her face from an endless string of furrowed scowls.
During our visits, Dad would talk to Mom and stroke her hair that was usually stringy and damp looking from being under-washed. I would sit on the edge of the chair between my father's splayed legs, stare into my mother's face, and try to remember what she looked like when she watched me at ballet class. Risa would pace the room, read the "get well" cards that sat on the windowsill, and occasionally shoot a glance toward Dad and I, huddled over Mom like our dying saviour.
We still went to ballet lessons. In fact, after Mom drank the Liquid Drano, the routine of our home life seemed unaltered. Risa's bed was still made every morning; mine was still a mess. I still ate cold cereal and milk for breakfast, peanut butter and fluff sandwiches for lunch, and grilled cheese, or sometimes McDonald's for dinner. Risa still ate dry toast with cucumbers, salads drowned in blue-cheese dressing, and tea mixed with packets of Sweet 'N' Low.
Dad was more at ease without Mom in the house. He no longer whispered at us, afraid to disturb her while she was "resting." And the nights that he was home from work early, he would sit on the couch and watch television with my sister and me, his feet always up on the coffee table, eating purple plums or cracking open walnuts that Risa had set out for him in a bowl.
When at home, I felt particularly light on my feet, as if the oxygen level had changed, and I was breathing brand new air. And perhaps I was, for the entire physical presence of the house felt altered. With the curtains no longer drawn shut, walls that had formerly been murky shades of greenish-grey were now creamy yellow and bone white. The ceilings seemed higher, the windows seemed grander, and the floors seemed to stretch before me with the exaggerated length of a bowling lane.
The only time Risa and I ever talked about Mom was at night, while we were getting ready for bed. The conversation was more like a prayer, a repetition of simple words that reassured us of our mother's existence. Risa would say something like: "Mom would have laughed so hard at Mary Tyler Moore tonight." And I would say, "Yeah, she just hates Ted." A moment of silence would follow, and then my sister would turn the key on the bottom of the toothpaste and twist out a worm of soft peppermint onto each of our toothbrushes.
One day, in the middle of the week, Dad decided to take us shopping to get a present for Mom.
"You can each pick out one thing for her," he said. "Whatever you want."
"Anything?" I asked, imagining diamond necklaces and pink satin shoes.
"Within reason," Dad said. "Anything within reason."
We went to Robinson's. Dad held open a spotless glass door so Risa and I could enter. The floor was shiny, white marble: a sounding board for the endless stream of clunky, wooden, platform shoes and pointy, plastic pumps. Risa walked over to the handbags and began examining a rack of leather totes. I wandered slowly around a cosmetic counter, staring alternately at the women behind the counter and the array of colored treasures that they seemed to guard. Dad stood in the middle of the aisle, grimacing and gesticulating in small half-thrown movements as he thought to himself while he waited for us.
"What can I do for you today?" A voice from behind the counter startled me as I examined a display of lipsticks, eye shadows and blush, arranged like a still life inside a glass coffin. I looked up and saw what I then thought was the most beautiful woman in the world. Her hair had the color and slickness of oil. It hung from a perfect center part, straight down to her shoulders. And it moved en masse, as if the strands were stuck together, or as if they were made of thick nylon. Black spider-leg like lashes popped out around her eyes; they gave her a dramatic look that I perceived as glamour. She had a nose like an arrow. It pointed straight down and then snared up at each nostril. And she had the largest mouth I had ever seen: candy red, slick like a raincoat, wide and fat. I stared into her face and made a silent wish that she somehow would become my mother.
"I'm looking for a present," I said.
"For whom?" she asked, and she leaned onto the counter, her lips making a pulpy, wet "O" as she spoke.
"Uh uh a friend. My aunt." It occurred to me that if this woman were ever going to be my mother, it would be necessary for my real mother not to exist.
"How old is she? Does she wear Lancôme?"
"She's thirty-five," I said. "I think she wears Land-come."
The woman laughed, slid open a drawer, and pulled out several shiny gold tubes of lipstick.
"A lady can never have too much lipstick," she said, and she popped off the top of each tube, twisted out the waxy lipstick and lined them up on the counter.
"Why don't you pick the color you think would look best on her," she said. She then lifted each tube, held it near her chin like a microphone, and recited the name of every shade. "Iced Candy, Burnt Sugar, Toast of Paris, Ripe Cherry, Cherries on Ice, Kiss That Red "
"What color are you wearing?" I asked with my head turned so she couldn't see me blush.
"I'm wearing Cherry Tomato," she said.
"I think she wears Cherry Tomato too," I was speaking into my shoulder, afraid to look her in the eye.
"Okay then, Cherry Tomato it is!" She twisted shut each of the tubes, replaced the caps and returned them to the display. "Should I wrap that for you?"
"Yes," I whispered. "How much is it?"
"About ten dollars with the tax," she said.
"Okay," I said, and I hurried off to my father without explaining where I was going.
"I need ten dollars for Mom's present," I told him.
"What're you getting her?" he asked.
"Yeah, lipstick. Please can I have the ten dollars now, the lady's wrapping it."
"Are you sure you want to get her lipstick?"
"Yes, I'm positive."
"Risa's getting her a new wallet."
"I want to get her lipstick."
"I thought maybe you could get her a key chain to match the wallet."
"I don't want to get her a key chain, I want to get her lipstick."
"Why don't you look at the key chains, and see if there's one you might like better than lipstick."
"You said we could pick out whatever we wanted. I want to get her lipstick."
"You're sure you don't want to get her a key chain?"
"Okay, here's ten dollars. What kind of lipstick costs ten dollars? It better be good lipstick."
"It's good lipstick," I said, and I ran back to the counter.
Read the rest of "Lipstick"