Oct/Nov 2021  •   Nonfiction

The Periodic Heart

by M. M. Adjarian

Artwork borrowed from Unsplash.com

Artwork borrowed from Unsplash.com

The 12th-grade English teacher I loved like a father once told me to use the darkness inside me to ink the pages of a journal. I never did. But the countdown calendars I scratched into a spiral-bound notebook the summer before I left for Berkeley came close. By then, Southern California—and especially my mother—had pushed me to the edge. She had become as unpredictable as the uranium charging the twin domes of the San Onofre nuclear power plant in San Clemente, just down the coast from where we lived in Malibu.

I fled our house every chance I could. My favorite haunt was the Santa Monica Pier, where I watched fishermen reel in perch, mackerel and white sea bass and let the Pacific breezes clear my head. Every X I marked on my calendar celebrated possibilities wide as the blue-green ocean that calmed me. It was different for my mother. With no prospects for anything beyond the passage of days in the overgrown ranch house we shared on Point Dume, time was not on her side.

It hadn't always been that way. My mother had dreamed of being the next Marie Curie. But as soon as those dreams started coming true, she walked away. My brother Fred had told me the woman he knew growing up in New York and Kansas had been independent but giving. Kind. The woman I knew was housebound and unreasonable with a violent streak that only worsened the older I got. Because she didn't go out, I couldn't, either. Or if I did, the restrictions she imposed made me want to run screaming and never come back.

It was my tenth grade chemistry teacher who gave me a language to understand my mother. In the fall of 1980, I had just begun high school in Santa Monica, and Mr. Vaughan had introduced us to the periodic table. Perched on a stool at the front of the class in a white lab coat, Mr. Vaughan regarded us through thick-lensed glasses, wagging his index finger as he spoke. The neurons in my brain fired fast as lightening as he described atomic structure. Around me, students twirled pens between their fingers or slouched under their desks, faces vacant with disinterest.

Mr. Vaughan gestured to the periodic table hanging above the chalkboard. "All the elements you see on this chart come in stable and unstable forms called isotopes," he said. "Unstable isotopes are radioactive and can decay in an instant, over centuries, or sometimes over billions and billions of years."

I rested my chin on my left hand and thought about the protestors who sometimes gathered outside the San Onofre power plant. They were afraid and rightfully so; Three Mile Island had shown the world that atomic energy was a genie in the bottle. The girl next to me yawned while I smiled into my notebook. Mr. Vaughan bored her. But to me, he sounded like Carl Sagan, whose show Cosmos had made me want to blast off into outer space, a telescope stuck to my eye. Billions and billions of stars.

"Because matter is neither created nor destroyed, decay really means transmutation. A radioactive sample can transmute into one or more different elements over time."

My hand crept into the air. I spoke softly, as though fearing I might actually be heard. "When does the process stop?"

Mr. Vaughan peered at me in mild surprise. Someone in that dead-quiet high school science room had been listening to him after all. He adjusted his glasses and blinked.

"Decay ends when the element transmutes into lead."

Transmute. Transmutation. I scribbled the words into my notes and pored over them, loving how important they sounded, how scientific. A biography of Einstein I had read in fifth grade had filled me with longing to be a physicist. Writers like Bradbury, Asimov, and Heinlein only stoked the fantasy and the wonder. Oddly enough, it was neither Einstein nor my favorite speculative writers I thought about now, but my mother, the ex-scientist. And in particular, the strange way her life seemed like a study in atomic decay.

The decade before I was born, she had burned bright as the sun. A biochemist in the Department of Experimental Medicine at the Jensen-Salisbury labs in Kansas City, she had taken over as family breadwinner while my father built his bookbinding business. Her career and lifestyle choices had been unconventional, especially for a white, middle-class woman of the 1950s. She could care less. My mother was living the liberated life of a Marie Curie, raising a child and supporting her husband, all while writing articles about how veterinarians could use tranquilizers as anesthetics. Thoroughly modern, she was having it all and driving a sleek '56 Corvette to boot. Five years into her marriage with my father, around 1959, the tables turned. Suddenly she became the one to use tranquilizers and need financial support from others.

This, I decided, was the beginning of her first half-life transmutation. My mother blamed professional jealousies and the white-walled claustrophobia of closed lab rooms. When the UCLA library rare books division hired Papa, the university offered my mother a fellowship to continue her research. She refused it and jaws dropped. Again she had excuses. The 45-minute drive from Malibu to Westwood down the winding Coast Highway was too much, she said. And motherhood called. The jaws closed. And as they did, so did all the professional doors my mother could have entered as a research scientist.

I studied the chart above Mr. Vaughan, wondering if my egg-bald teacher shined his head. In my mind, I pictured my mother not as the volatile woman I lived with, but as an element. I sketched out an atom and labeled its parts. Protons and neutrons clustered at the center; electrons orbited around both. My pencil traced out a name: rosinium. I would call the atom after my mother's Italian name, Rosina. Unsure where to put her on the periodic table, I flipped through my textbook to the section on isotopes and decided the half-life of my imagined element was at the lower end of the spectrum Mr. Vaughan had described. A little more than the five years of cobalt-60 and a little less than the twelve years of hydrogen-3.

Scientists looked for patterns to help them make sense of what defied their understanding. The more I studied chemistry, the more I realized that to one extent or another, I had always sought to piece together what made my mother who she was. In high school, while I wrestled with the adolescence that sometimes brought me to my knees, her life became my unofficial research project, the thing I tried to unravel like the secrets of the atom.

I attributed the maverick streak that led her to study science in the first place to a rebel maternal great-great-grandfather. The eldest son of a Venetian baron and Austrian navy admiral, Emilio Bandiera rejected his father's pro-Austrian politics to become a follower of the pro-Italian independence leader, Giuseppe Mazzini. Later, he and his brother Attilio became martyrs for the Italian Risorgimento. My mother rarely spoke of Emilio, though. Instead she showed off the family coat-of-arms she'd hung by the front door of our house.

Her Bandiera brothers lineage made my mother's marriage to Papa, a working class man from Paris, seem like poetic justice. But there was more to her rebelliousness. That became clear in the early post-divorce years, when my mother, alone and frightened, took me with her almost everywhere she went. She confided in me more, dropping details about her life in Italy. I squirreled away everything, including stories about her big-breasted redhead mother, a woman I did not like.

The first time I remember her speaking plainly about this grandmother, Irma, we were sitting in her old blue VW Fastback just outside the downtown Malibu post office. My mother had received a letter from Irma that day. A letter I knew had come from Italy because of the tricolore stripping along the edge of the tissue-thin airmail envelope my mother held between trembling fingertips.

Waving the sheet she had extracted from it like a flag, my mother grimaced. "I hate the letters Mémé sends me. You don't know how much."

"What do the letters say?"

She shook her head, her eyes still glued to the thin sheets of paper in her hands. "I left Italy because of her. But her letters still find me."

"Maybe you shouldn't write to her."

"Ah!" She looked at me, tragedy flickering in her face. "It's not so simple."

My mother could be Latin-blood dramatic. But I sympathized because Irma had never been especially kind to me. Or to my mother, who told me Irma had left her in convent schools until she went to college. I had an idea why, and it had to do with her father, Paolo. His greedy brothers had seized his assets when he died, then left my infant mother a token inheritance and Irma even less. Mémé, it seemed, carried grudges. Especially since my mother looked like her father, the way I looked like Papa.

My mother pushed the letter back into the envelope and shoved it into her purse. Her life seemed so complicated and mysterious. I wanted to know more about the letter. About the nuns who had looked after her. About why my father had, in a fit of frustration, called them hysterical. But the time for confidences had passed. Her face had frozen into the inscrutability of the bronze-colored Madonna sitting on her bedroom dresser like a shrine to martyrdom. And the traditions she orbited like a rogue electron around the heavy protons of heritage and family that would not let her go.

The part of my mother's story I knew from childhood began with the Fulbright that brought her to the United States in 1952. She had come for the opportunity she could not find in an Italy destroyed by Mussolini and Allied bombings. But I had no doubt my mother's enforced religious upbringing played an unacknowledged role in her decision to cross the Atlantic. She could breathe here. Sow the wild oats she could not as a Catholic woman in Italy. Twenty-seven when she arrived, my mother often told me she would go out with as many as three men in a single day.

The look in her face when she would remember these men—the half-closed eyes, the tilted head, the slightly lifted eyebrow—was sly, like a cat who had eaten the bird. Then the scion of an old-money Boston family began courting her, and she thought she had found her American anchor. Until she met his family.

"Bob belonged to his mamma," she told me one day when I was still too young to really understand what dating meant. "When he took me to his house in Boston, it was 'Yes, mother' this, 'yes, mother' that. Oh, he liked me. Very much. But when she found out I was Catholic... well, that was the end of that story." Her lips curled. "Then I met your father. Madonna Santa, that man didn't even have a change of underwear when I met him."

My forehead puckered at the disapproval in her voice. "Why did you marry Papa if you didn't like him?" I asked, wondering how she even knew about his underwear in the first place.

"Eh," she said, throwing out her chin and hiking up her shoulders. "I wanted a family. Very much. Then the Church got involved. So did my mother."

"But..." The hard look stopped me. My mother had no patience for the daughter who always asked too many questions, like what the Church or my toplofty grandmother—who never even liked my father and his low-class ways in the first place—had to do with her marriage.

That didn't stop me from trying to make sense of the information she doled out in fragments. After the Boston man broke it off with her, a green-carded Frenchman she met at the Cornell International Students' Club began paying her court. He spent entire nights in his second-hand Studebaker parked outside the residence hall where she lived just so he could give her a ride to school the next morning.

My mother stopped holding her nose when she saw his skills as a bookbinder. Intrigued—and perhaps even secretly thrilled—by a man totally unlike the intellectuals and effete riccastri rich boys who circled her, she married Papa in September 1953. Atomic opposites had attracted and combined to form the molecule of family. The day my mother took her vows with my father, she had been two months pregnant.

That part of the story I figured out later, after she told me my brother had been born three weeks late in May of the following year. I was a teenager then; I knew about sex and could finally begin to read between the lines of old stories. Though I don't remember the exact age—maybe 13, maybe 14—I do remember the mile-wide grin the day I put two and two together. I had deduced one of my mother's secrets. And finally understood how Catholicism, along with the baby she carried, had become the two electrons bonding her in marital covalence to my father.

In Mr. Vaughan's lectures on the periodic chart, we learned about the toxicity of radioactive elements. All of them sat heavily at the end of the table, as if weighing down the other elements, and began with polonium, which Marie Curie had discovered. Exposure to them killed you slowly, from the inside out. When you finally did see the damage, there wasn't much you could do about it.

The description fit my experience of living with rosinium. Like radioactive isotopes, she was unstable. I couldn't predict much about her—and especially her temper—after about the age of eight or nine, right about the time she divorced my father. I saw more violence from her, violence she called discipline. Before, when there was still a family around her to keep her stable, she used an old green Boy Scout belt to butt-swat me the same way she did my brother, for standard childhood sins of disobedience. But when it was just her and me in the big Malibu house, she began to hit any part of my body her hands could reach.

"Pezzo d'imbecile. Cretina. Idiot. Moron," she would scream, pummeling me with her fists.

Shielding my body from her blows, I would remain silent.

"You hate me, don't you."

You make me want to.

"And such a disgrace. Just like your father."

At least he doesn't hit me, witch.

My refusal to speak and engage dissatisfied her. Which actually made me different from Papa. When he and my mother fought, my father would raise the roof with his anger. Then he would retreat to his workshop and go sullen for a while. I did the next best thing. I drew up the drawbridge immediately and let my mother flounder in a moat of silence.

The violence grew increasingly random in the years that followed. I chalked it up as another phase of half-life decay. Sometimes infractions like an unmade bed or white lie would go unnoticed, but other times they brought out my mother's fury, which had begun to include threats to foist me off on Papa and his lover Patty. I imagined rage swirling at her core like the excess atomic particles in Mr. Vaughan's isotopes. My mother didn't want to just discipline me. She wanted control, perhaps to make up for a life she could not seem to master.

It would take me years to see the hollowness of her threats and the pathological fear underlying them. But before I did, those threats terrified me even more than her blows. Malibu was all I had ever known. Shaggy as the property had become post-divorce, it still maintained a park-like dignity, with tall eucalyptus trees at the front and pink and white oleanders growing along the driveway. I loved it there, and she knew it.

What I didn't see was that no matter how much my mother disliked how I acted, she also needed me. For Papa's on-again, off-again child support checks. To pick up beauty grains for her face and medicines like diazepam—for sleep she said, never telling me more than I needed to know—in neat white bags from her favorite pharmacy in Santa Monica. And to do the shopping every time we went to the supermarket, while she waited in the car. Because by the time I had reached Mr. Vaughan's tenth grade chemistry class, she had become a confirmed recluse and I her teenage connection to the outside world.

When I wasn't calling her rosinium behind her back, I was in awe of my mother's former brilliance. I was only 15, but I already knew female ambition had likely felt more burden than blessing to my mother in a marriage-and-motherhood-mad '50s that made me snicker whenever I saw evidence of it on I Love Lucy reruns. My mother, in turn, respected my good grades. It made up for the fact I looked and acted so much like her reprobate ex-husband. Still, the admiration we had for each other's minds didn't make living with her any easier. She often used my intelligence as a weapon, especially when she detected any hint of preference for my father. Especially when he did things she could not forgive like, on occasion, not send her child support checks. I would tell her—until I finally learned to hold my tongue—he probably had forgotten.

My mother would look at me, half in pity, half in scorn. "You're a smart girl. Everyone says so. And I saw it in your eyes the day you were born. But how is it you refuse to see your father just doesn't give a damn?"

"He's busy. And his mind slips sometimes."

She would cross her arms. "You do like to defend your father, don't you? That man has lied all his life. To everyone. And intelligent as you are, you still believe him."


"No. It's in your blood. You are an Adjarian, your father's daughter. What a heritage."

To her it was simple. If I could just understand how poorly my father treated us—and especially her, as his long-suffering ex-wife—all would be well. The real truth was that under the rancor and rage, she was just as selfish as my father. Papa may have drifted in and out of my life. And been at times unreliable. But of the two, my mother was the only one who ever spoke ill of him or tried to turn me into her unquestioning ally in their private war.

If Mr. Vaughan's class gave me a new way to understand my mother, high school gave me something to focus on aside from my problems with her. And something to strive for. College came next, and I needed to keep my grades high to get in. But I also knew I needed extracurriculars. Starting in seventh grade, teachers always talked about well-roundedness, how colleges—the good ones—wanted more than people who could just do school well. They wanted people with interests. Passions. A life outside of books, learning, and differential equations.

But junior high was when my need to branch out ran headlong into my mother's rules. I'd been in orchestra then. And occasionally braved school dances. But for almost every concert or dance I ever attended, I'd been forced to bum rides from schoolmates and their mothers. My mother refused to take me anywhere. She didn't have the time. Gas was expensive. She had night-blindness. The Pacific Coast Highway was dangerous.

My mother always had an excuse to fling at me to cover her own discomfort with being around other parents. Or even being in public. By the time I was in eighth grade, my mother rarely left the house. The other mothers did it with a smile—at first. After that I became the extra child on temporary loan from a mother never neighborly enough to return their favors.

I swore things would be different once I got to Santa Monica High, the place all the kids called Samo. By that point, my mother was letting me ride the city bus between Malibu and Santa Monica. But any time I went anywhere, I had to call her. And I could not stay out after dark. No one else I knew had to do that; neighbor kids I knew were already driving cars, doing drugs, and pushing midnight curfews.

My first semester at Samo High, I joined the forensics team. That was all fine, until I told my mother about weekend tournaments that would mean taking buses into Santa Monica, and on occasion, deeper into West Los Angeles, which she didn't like. But it was a daytime activity and there were buses, so she could not say no. The first tournament at University High, just four miles northeast of Samo, went well. There were congratulations. And an honorable mention. But I'd also called her several times, running the gauntlet of peers who eyed me with curiosity each time I hurried outside to find a public pay phone.

The next tournament at my high school proved my undoing. And all because I was having too much fun flirting with a tall, curly-haired senior named Matthew. Both of us were competing together in the same division, Original Prose and Poetry. My stomach curled and flipped when we practiced the pieces we'd prepared. His poems about emerald queens, satin nightmares, and smack-shooting Santas rambled, but I didn't care. All I could think about was what it would be like to taste his spit on a joint and feel his tongue in my mouth.

When I read him the moody prose-poem I had written about swimming naked into the arms of an ocean death, he clapped. A hormone rush made me swoon. Time passed and guilt nagged, but I did not want to break the spell. I left campus in the late afternoon, happy. So high I didn't care that it would be dark by the time I got home. As soon as I walked into the house, my mother ran to me, grabbed my arms, and shook me hard.

"Why didn't you phone? I was so worried about you!"

"Everything was fine."

My mother's eyes bulged cartoonishly from her face. She panted fear. "Well, what if things hadn't been fine?"

"I was safe, Mom. Nobody bothered me."

"Yes, but I didn't know that. You should have phoned me. I was just about ready to call the sheriff's department."

I let my mother's haranguing wash over me, glad her fists had stayed out of the argument. But even as my muscles began to relax, I knew she likely wasn't done with me. That was how it was with my mother: Cross her once, and she made sure you remembered.

Two weeks later, the hammer finally fell. The night before the third tournament of the season, I told her I would be competing again. She already knew because she had heard me practicing; she had even offered encouragement.

"I'm sorry, but no," she said, meeting the open-mouthed shock in my face with something that almost passed for sadness. "You're not going anywhere."

"But I worked for weeks on those monologues!"

Her voice was cold. "I don't care. You're not going, and that's final."

I wept, I begged, I pleaded. Nothing helped.

"No more discussion," she said, walking away, her wooden house shoes slapping against the soft soles of her feet in quick staccato succession.

Stunned—but not entirely surprised—by my mother's pronouncement, I spent the weekend seething at her calculated malice and berating myself for my own cowardice. I bit my nails and fretted and wept some more. When I tried to explain what happened to the forensics teacher the following Monday, she just shook her head. I had let the team down, made everyone look bad. I couldn't expect to keep competing if I couldn't come.

Frustration welled inside me; I wanted to explode. Not fair. Not my fault. Instead I told the teacher I quit the team and walked out of the classroom, blurry-eyed with rage.

I never quite forgave my mother for forcing me to leave the forensics team. And for weighing me down with her fear and not letting me find my way. It was about then that I came to the conclusion I was right about rosinium being radioactive. Mr. Vaughan had told us radioactive elements had the highest atomic numbers for having the most protons and neutrons in the nucleus. That made them heavy, just like my mother, a densely-massed thing so full of spite and sadness she could not see beyond her own life. She forced me into a fixed orbit around her when all I wanted to do was be a normal teenager and go out and kiss boys and get into a good college.

It hadn't always been that way. I dimly remembered a generous woman who wanted to see me move forward when a weak immune system had kept me out of most of kindergarten. But my mother tutored me every day so I would not get held back. I loved her so much then. Enough that I wanted to inhale every atom of the body she splashed in musky L'Air du Temps perfume into my own. But that was before the end of her marriage to my father. Before she transmuted from mother and housewife into a crazy-anxious divorcée.

I decided it was part of the decay pattern for rosinium. Without the groundedness of married life or of her old career, my mother's life became increasingly discombobulated. She took a job in the back offices of the Beverly Hills Gucci a year after the divorce in 1975, then complained about the bad attitudes of the rich people and movie stars who shopped there. Gucci laid her off a year later. Rather than find another job, my mother decided to create her own business importing yarns from Italy. If the Gucci founder, a man with no education, could do it, so could she, the daughter of a man who had built a small fortune selling yarns and textiles in Northern Italy. It was in her blood, after all. An epigenetic marker of success.

By the time I was in seventh grade, my mother—with input from my father, when she felt like talking to him—turned a laundry room outbuilding into a small warehouse. Then she went to a Florentine jeweler who made her a gold signet ring inscribed with the Baron Bandiera's crest and the words "From Italy to You." Going to local knit shops, visiting the occasional trade show, or advertising in small knitting magazines and staying mostly at home while wearing her talisman of a ring weren't enough. But no one could tell my mother that. Just as no one could tell me my dream of being a scientist had more to do with my mother than I allowed.

After Gucci, she spent most of her days at home, head down in her business or her problems. I was the afterthought she tried to keep under control, and that hurt. So I poured myself into the accelerated math and science courses I had convinced myself would bring me closer to her. Yet the further I got with both, the harder they became for me to understand. Just like my mother, they made me struggle. And cry, especially when I didn't get the A's I secretly hoped would make her proud enough to finally call me hers. But I wouldn't give up. I couldn't. It would mean losing our already tenuous connection.

Living with rosinium was as complicated as it was lonely. No forensics team meant no more chances to be with people I knew. And no more chances to see Matthew, even though a beautiful flame-haired senior named Isabel had already claimed his attention. My mother had banned me from going out with boys until I was eighteen. So I dove into my work and moved to the rhythms of assignments, homework, classroom interactions and giggly whispers about who liked whom.

A few managed to climb over the wall my mother had built around me. A boy solitary-looking enough to be trustworthy did just that in eighth grade. By then, I'd become a tomboy in corduroy board shorts. Mostly, we talked bands and skateboards. He could kickflip and ollie when I couldn't do much more than roll and ride. The friendship ended and left me flat as a deflated balloon when he left for Santa Monica High the year before I did. The next person didn't appear until the year after Mr. Vaughan's chemistry class. And when she did, I fell into the closest thing to love I had ever known.

A skirt made of ties drew me to her. To Jessica. I'd seen her around Samohi, her wide hips swaying under yards of tenting dress fabric. I'd even had her once in a class, a fact I only remembered later, after we'd introduced ourselves to each other. But that brilliant hodgepodge of stripes, clashing colors, polka dots and paisley instantly made me realize she was special.

We were sitting in the room the history teacher we shared kept open during lunch. I wasn't a regular there, but she was. Taking a seat near the back, I saw a cascade of colors and patterns fall around her soft, wide body as she stood up to throw out the remains of her lunch.

"Where did you get that?"

She turned to me and touched the narrow panels of her skirt. "From a thrift shop. In Venice. I think it's art, don't you?" Jessica beamed.

I looked down at my alligator shirt, Bermuda shorts, and tasseled shoes. It was my new rebellion, this preppy, hyper-normal look. Not so much against being a girl as against Southern California surfer totalitarianism and, more quietly, the chaos in my own home. Jessica's skirt, I decided, was a much better protest, and it mesmerized me enough that I went back to look for her the next day. I found her wearing a wide-brimmed black hat trimmed with a blowzy pink rose.

She saw me and waved. I walked over, and Jessica pulled the sides of the hat down around her ears. "Very Janis Joplin, no?"

"Oh, yes!" I knew the name. And I knew the song attached to that name, "Piece of My Heart." But I had no idea what Janis Joplin looked like, only that I absolutely had to say yes to make this strange girl my friend.

"We were in jazz exercise class together last year," she said as we unpacked our sandwiches and began to eat. I smiled and nodded as Jessica talked, trying to cover for the fact I couldn't place her face. Then the image of a slightly overweight girl in a magenta leotard popped into my head.

"You used to wear tights with a flower patch on one thigh, right?" What I didn't tell her was how I also remembered the apologetic way she moved across the floor, eyes permanently glued to her feet.

"Yeah." Jessica retouched her lipstick. She scribbled her telephone number on a piece of notebook paper. "Call me," she said, breezing out the door and blowing kisses.

We took our lunchtime conversations home and tied up the telephone lines between our houses well into the early morning for the next few months. We did it so often my mother, waiting for the client calls that never came, forced me to call from Papa's bookbinding workshop, which sat apart from the house. There, fluorescent lights crackling overhead and darkness all around me, I could talk to Jessica about my mother, about what science and a hyperactive imagination could only partially explain. And hear another voice tell stories that, for the first time, validated my own and spoke with an openness that defied the secrets, half-truths, and silences in which my own family was steeped.

"My mother can't stand my father," I said one night in late spring. "All she ever does is tell me I look like him. She probably hates me like she hates him." The other thing, the violence, did not surface. To my mind it seemed too banal to mention.

"Sometimes I have to remind my mother I'm her daughter and not the man she divorced. But you want to know what her real problem is? She can't stay with one man." Laughing, Jessica added, "She's on her third husband, now."

"One marriage was plenty for mine," I said. "She doesn't even date."

Wistfulness crept into Jessica's voice. "I've got two younger step-brothers in Israel," she said. "But their dad won't let my mom see them."

"I've got an older brother I never see. He stopped talking to my mother after she refused to attend his wedding last year."


"My father brought his wife to the wedding. Mom wanted my brother to choose between her and my father."

"Parents," Jessica sighed. "What are you going to do? My step-dad in Israel went to court to have my mother declared an unfit parent because she'd been diagnosed as manic-depressive."


Her voice turned bitter. "So they can stay in Israel and serve in the army when they grow up. That's why."

We skinned off layers of shame, peeled our lives to the core, then stood naked before each other. But where Jessica stripped down fearlessly, I squirmed and writhed in discomfort, wanting more yet fearing what came next. Perhaps it was the darkness of my father's workshop or the sunrises we sometimes welcomed together that made everything seem so deliciously forbidden. Self-revelation thrilled and intoxicated me. Almost as much as Jessica did. It wasn't lesbian, this feeling; I didn't want to kiss or touch her the way I did crushes like Matthew. But the closeness felt full and exquisite and made everything about her magic. More magic than element tables and the hidden world of atoms. Or even Carl Sagan and his billions and billions of stars.

That summer I gave Jessica a small gold bracelet I'd never worn. I wrapped it carefully in tissue paper and imagined how pleased she would be. She had no gold jewelry, and it pleased me to give her something she wanted but could not afford. Realizing I didn't have ribbon, I took a wooden spool of silk buttonhole thread from my mother's sewing supplies to braid a gold-colored one as delicate as the bracelet inside. The night I made it, my mother charged through my bedroom door. I had recently been closing it even though she demanded I keep it open.

"What are you doing?" she thundered. Her eyes fell on the silk bobbin on my dresser, and her face began to work.

"I wanted to braid a ribbon for this." I held out the small tissue-paper rectangle containing the bracelet. "It's for Jessica."

My mother looked at the package suspiciously, then snatched the spool from my dresser.

"I... I really didn't think you'd mind," I stammered. "You had so many in—"

She cut in roughly. "If you love this girl so much to be doing this," she said, grabbing the braid out of my hands, "maybe you need to buy the silk yourself." Breathing curses, she fled.

The infraction had been minor. But it wasn't until after I'd given Jessica the bracelet that I realized my mother's anger hadn't been about sewing thread. It had been about giving something she wanted—my love—to someone else. For once, I didn't care. Seeing the white-toothed smile as she slipped on the bracelet had made me realize I had someone to make up for the parent-shaped holes in my life. My mother had no one except the memory of a man who had appeared as suddenly as he disappeared.

He had showed up at our front door the summer before—a paunchy, late-40-something man with a combover and scuffed oxblood shoes. Jim had come on behalf of the British Consulate to speak to my mother about finding British yarn companies interested in having her import their yarns. Her main supplier in Rome had abandoned her for competitors who promised bigger markets and returns. His warmth and rolling Scottish accent won me over, and by the time he was gone, my hard-to-please mother was glowing smiles. I suspected he had captivated her as well, and I was right. Telephone conversations and laughter I could hear through her bedroom door followed. Suddenly she became optimistic; Scottish mohair, merino, tweed, and cashmere would save her floundering business because Jim had practically guaranteed it. The sun had finally broken through the clouds.

"Do you think I should streak my hair?" It was early May. She stood gazing at herself in an elegant living room mirror that reminded me of pictures I had seen of Versailles. "Jim asked me to a business lunch," she said, fingering the gray that had appeared on her head.

"You look nice just like this," I said. And I meant it. She wore fifty-five like forty.

"Maybe I'll get a trim," she said, addressing her image.

Now I was curious. My celibate mother had a date. "Where are you going?"

My mother twisted her torso to me. "Paradise Cove. At the end of the month, on Saturday."

For the next three weeks, my mother spent more time fussing over what to wear than worrying about her business. She threw clothes on her bed, huffed, then hung them back up, only to do it again and again until she found an outfit she could live with. Then, a few days before the lunch, she marched into the bathroom armed with boxes of Miss Clairol and a pair of yellow Playtex gloves.

I had long been convinced my mother hated men; yet in that bathroom, her skin still smooth as an olive, my mother outshone the light bulbs over her head. I hoped Jim would not disappoint her. But in the weeks after their luncheon, Jim would not take her calls. Or made excuses to call and never did. Not until later that summer, as the light ebbed from my mother, did he finally tell her he could not see her again.

It had been the too-radiant light, the telltale glow of rosinium. I felt for my mother; rejections from boys I liked could make me cry for days, sometimes weeks. But it frightened me to see her hunched over the answering machine listening to old, garbled voicemails from Jim. Over and over again, looking for some secret message, tormenting herself over the man with the combed-over hair who had, for a moment, found her interesting, then crept away in fear of her beautiful, dangerous light.

In the months that followed, the radiance left her. The facial skin she tightened with beaten egg whites drooped as her body sagged. Then as summer turned to fall and I returned to start my junior year at Samohi, the British yarn mills stopped responding to her as well; my mother's business had turned them no profit. As my mother struggled, so did I, earning a C in precalculus to go with the B's I'd slaved to earn in physics and chemistry. But when Jessica arrived that spring, the struggles eased for me. I had a new best friend. With her mania for vintage store chic, dime-store lipstick, and all things '60s, Jessica seemed to be onto something better than I, with all my buttoned-down scientific aspirations, could ever know.

Jessica lived in Santa Monica, away from my mother's vigilance. But she was a girl, and that made her a more palatable friend to my mother, who allowed me to spend nights at her house. I flew out the open door she granted me and did not look back. That summer, Jessica took me with her to see films at the Nuart cinema, her favorite down-at-the-heel arthouse theater. And invited me to spend afternoons in her mother's small, sunny kitchen to listen to '60s music on a radio with a broken antenna. She told me Bob Dylan was a poet; I told her the Beatles were divine. And together we swore allegiance to Janis Ian, Jimi Hendrix, and the Supremes.

"My parents met in San Francisco," she said one afternoon. "In the Haight. I was actually conceived there."

"Wow," I said. "That's so cool." Being around Jessica made me wish I'd been born on a commune.

"Oh, but I love your mother's accent," she said. "It's so sweet and Old World."

"Don't say that, Jess. You don't know what it's like to live with her."

She shrugged her shoulders, then gave me an impish look. "Did I ever tell you that my mother and father and I took showers together? They didn't want me to grow up ashamed of my body."

"I can't even begin to imagine my parents ever sharing any kind of bath with me."

Her mother wore suit jackets and worked in an office. I decided this was a disguise, and her daughter the alter ego she had left behind for '80s respectability. Jessica loved the earthy, the sensual. I remembered how she had gushed at a screening of Zefirelli's Romeo and Juliet, loving the nudity, the fleshiness. Faces and bodies were all she ever drew or sculpted out of clay. Humanity was art, and she reveled in it.

Soon I ditched my preppy clothes for gauzy India print dresses and took my hair out of the pony tail I always wore. It was so new to me, and so freeing, this love of color and people. My life in the Malibu house felt as black-and-white as the TV sitting in the living room. Jessica loved books, too, and had read—or at least, attempted—all the classics on her mother's shelf including Ulysses. But she loved seeing the world in all its chaotic glory and wasn't afraid to cast herself into the messy stew of human relationships. That August, she began seeing a 21-year-old community college dropout and supermarket bagger boy. A month later, she called to tell me they had broken up.

"He came over," she said. "I told him I didn't want to see him anymore, and he cried." She paused. "I was painting my fingernails green when I told him. Do you think that was too insensitive?"

"No, of course not." I was lying, but Jessica could do no wrong.

"He was really sweet, you know, but kind of boring, too."

"There's never a good time to tell someone you want to end a relationship," I said, trying to sound sophisticated and hide my chagrin at my friend's callousness.

The boyfriend had just been part of a game that included wedding rings Jessica had filched from her mother's dresser. She dabbled in theater arts and called herself a thespian, so make-believe appealed to her, which only added to her charm. Still, what she said troubled me, more for its brutal nonchalance than its immaturity. Immediately I worried for our friendship. I was female, so it was different. Or was it? The thought I might no longer amuse her one day terrified me. Jessica kept the inner darkness at the perimeters of my life at bay. A darkness reminding me how the radioactive obsessions that had made my mother weep over a man in oxblood shoes lurked under my skin as well.

They started, these obsessions, when I was 13 and newly enamored of the Tony Alva skateboard with the too-narrow trucks I'd badgered Papa to buy me for my birthday. One involved my eighth grade Spanish teacher and bordered on something I did not know to call erotic. But that snaked through my body with a languid lingering fire as pleasing as it was confusing.

Though I favored boys clothes, I hadn't sworn off all things female. Sometimes I still wore skirts. One day, I discovered the teacher staring at my skinny legs, which sometimes made me feel I was half horse. I saw his eyes slide under my desk. From then on, I wore skirts more deliberately. A pudgy classmate with braces and tiny red pinpoints of acne noticed my teacher's wandering eyes and told me. I simulated shock to hide my secret and perverse delight that a mature man had looked beyond the awkward teenager and seen the shape of a woman.

Of course, my mother knew all about the teacher, how animated I became when I talked of the flamenco dancing he did as a hobby. I mock-stamped my feet, S-curved my spine and threw my head back in imitation of the flamenco movements the teacher had shown the class. She called me out with a laugh. I had a crush on him, didn't I? My shoulders drooped; she had seen through me to the feelings I could not acknowledge. Worse, she'd found them funny.

I never said another word to her about him afterward. He became a Chinese box over which I brooded, concealing an even more potent secret. He attracted me not just for his admiration of my body, but for his daily presence in my life. Fixations with other male teachers —which I communicated in muted tones through Christmas cards and fruit baskets—came and went after that. I hated myself for wanting to draw nearer to these men, my teachers; yet I seemed helpless to stop myself from the longing I could not understand.

Jessica knew nothing about the older men or my troubled feelings for them. But within a month of breaking up with her bagger boy, she knew all about Mr. C, our twelfth grade AP English teacher.

He had taught my tenth grade composition and literature class and looked just like Odysseus, the character he introduced us to that year. Unlike my junior high fixations, I never gave Mr. C a second thought. He was just the tall, red-blond teacher from Iowa who lavished A's on everyone. And the man whose faced closed tight as a safe anytime he spoke of having served in the Korean War.

That all changed the second time I had him. It happened slowly. So slowly, in fact, that I didn't realize it until Jessica complained I needed to stop dwelling on Mr. C.

"Have you seen the way he watches us during class study periods?" I asked her after class midway through the fall semester. Several times I had noticed how he swept his eyes around the room then come to rest for an extra moment on me.

"He's the teacher. He's supposed to do that."

"No Jess. I feel like he watches me. Remember that time after your Antigone performance? He went up to your mom to talk to her after the show, and she saw his eyes drift to where I was sitting and just stare."

Jess raised her eyebrows. "Okay, that was a little strange. But don't dwell on it. Or on him."

"I wish I could understand why he does that."

"Maybe you interest him."

"Yes, but how?"

"You ask too many questions. He likes you. Isn't that enough?"

Seeing him watch me, I felt special, almost like I did in my junior high Spanish class. Only Mr. C never looked at my body. I wondered if it had to do with my writing and the things I wrote about. Like the story I'd modeled after James Joyce's "Eveline" about the boy who wanted to leave home but couldn't, the story that had won a Literary Cavalcade writing contest he had suggested I enter in tenth grade. And that I never dreamed I'd win. Or the poem I'd written about a corpse remembering life, selected for a national collection of writing by high school students.

That first semester of twelfth grade, he had encouraged me to enter another contest. It was big and national, just what I needed for a college resume that never seemed good enough. I wrote another story, a sad one, about a boy musician whose mother sold the piano he loved, sent it in and never heard back. It read like Andersen's "The Little Match Girl," Mr. C. said. Melodramatic. My world turned upside down the January day the high school newspaper announced that another of Mr. C's students, a tenth grader, had placed third.

I went home, slammed the door to my room shut and wailed like a wild thing. It wasn't long before my mother burst in to demand what had happened. A few days later, for the first and only time of my entire high school career, she called Samohi.

"So I talked to your English teacher today," she announced when I returned home.

I stared at her. "You did what?"

"He says it doesn't matter that you lost that contest. You're still one of the best students he's ever had."

The violence of my tears had awakened a rare concern in my mother. But only because I had sobbed hard enough for her to realize someone else was in pain besides herself.

"How could you do this?"

"You come from school. You go to your room and close the door until dinner. And then you cry. Mr. C said that it would be good for you to see a counselor." Unexpectedly, she laughed. "He said maybe I needed help, too. And I told him 'We Italians don't go to therapists. We talk to our friends.'"

As if you had friends to begin with, rosinium.

The next day, Mr. C called a lunchtime conference with me. I slunk hangdog into his classroom as he pulled up a chair and sat down. I kept my eyes fixed to the desk in front of me, too ashamed to meet his gaze.

"Keep a journal," I heard his voice say, not unkindly. "Whatever you're feeling inside, write it out. You might feel better."

The rest of what he said slid past me. And another voice, roaring from deep within the conch-like curves of my inner ear, drowned his voice like the sea.

Disgraziada. You let him down.

High school couldn't end quickly enough for me. My mother's unhinged moodiness continued to worsen. And Jessica spent more time with new theater arts friends who invited her to parties where people drank beer, smoked pot, and felt each other up. And, rumor had it, fucked. Disappointed with my friend and with the math and science I thought were mine to rule the world, I scooched closer to words. They were all I had left. Mr. C had made me believe in them. That they were mine to speak in original ways truly my own. You might say something no one else has before.

My mother spoke at me. Over me. Mr. C was different. He listened when I spoke in class. Told me I could write. Now I wanted to tell this man who had quietly crossed an invisible line between student and teacher that I had heard him. So when he asked us to write a final paper, I wrote poems instead. Not just to show him I was better than a lost writing contest. But that I had heard his unspoken pain in the stories he had told of growing flowers after returning from Korea. That I had understood the wounds he carried because they were like the ones I had suffered in the war between my parents.

For the rest of that term, I wrote. About loneliness and growing old. About flowers creeping up to the sun from sidewalk cracks. Growing bolder, I wrote about a Native American boy forced to kill a deer to prove his manhood. And then did the most daring thing of all. I imagined what my teacher had seen on the battlefield. The bomb blasts, the destruction and death—all of it became real to me.

Those hands I cannot think were mine
Were wed, flesh to metal.
Unlikely lovers, they became one in battle.
I grew into a savage hunter else I'd become the hunted.
And I was my country's gentle son. [...]
I stank of sweat and foreign earth.
My bones held up a ragged tent.
I was a man unclean [...]
Yesterday I murdered
Today my soul dies by degrees.
Rest in peace, my peaceless soul.

If he had killed men in Korea the way Odysseus had killed men during the Trojan War, he was not to blame. He had done what others had compelled him to do, not what he willingly would have chosen himself. I understand it all, I wanted to say. And you are not alone.

I don't remember when my mother's collarbones and ribcage became sharp enough for me to see them under her skin. Only that they were suddenly staring me in the face the last semester of high school. She had been talking to herself, too, watering the words she spoke with frequent tears. It wasn't just about the failed business or the man who got away. It was the impending loss of the daughter she'd somehow not realized had grown up enough to go away to college. She needed comfort; her skeleton reminded me of just how human she really was. But she was still rosinium, and I was afraid. And grieving losses that had shattered my heart into rainbow-colored pieces I did not want to gather.

By the time I saw my mother's bones, Jessica had permanently faded from my life. We rarely talked, though she sometimes still turned a simpering gaze on me in Mr. C's class. Feeling abandoned, I rejected the hippiedom to which Jessica had introduced me. For the rest of the semester, only the ugliest, edgiest clothes in my closet would do. I exposed and objectified my body in torn fishnet stockings, skirts my mother had given me that barely covered the tops of my thighs, and expensive black stiletto heels I ground into the pavement and destroyed. A few weeks before I graduated, a hairstylist lopped off my brown pageboy and cropped my hair so close to the skull my scalp shone through.

Without realizing it I was mirroring my mother, wearing her extreme moods on my body and calling it punk. In the meantime, she hunkered down in my pre-preppy cast-offs. If she wasn't wearing my old flare-bottom jeans, she was burrowing in old beige turtlenecks and sweaters I wanted to rip from her body and burn. She hated her life as much as I hated mine. All while holding on to an old version of who I had been. My new persona wore black and sexuality and affected a prickly indifference to the world; now I just wanted to find my way—without the girl I adored—to bohemian nirvana.

I looked for it in places and things I knew. Like my father's empty workshop, where I smoked Djarum clove cigarettes I'd bought in secret and flew out open windows on furious nicotine headrushes. Like my mother's kitchen, where I did surreptitious shots of cooking wine and rum shots that buzzed me fast and got me drunk enough one night I woke up in my own stinking vomit. I wanted to shock my mother, make her stop living a half-life of a half-life. But my mother, holed up in her bedroom or her office, often weeping, said nothing.

My rage became self-destructive. I skipped my A-period government class for days at a time to wander the dead flatlands of the old Santa Monica mall on third street, and flirted with old bums who admired my body and called me Pretty Baby. Sometimes, at midday, I went to the cemetery seven blocks from my high school, where I inhaled poems by Sylvia Plath or stared at headstones and wondered how the people under them had died. I watched with nihilistic glee as my grades slipped. I'd already been admitted to Berkeley, and it didn't matter. I was killing the striver, and not much mattered to me anymore.

On the last day of school, I decided to pick up the one thing I did care about: the packet of poems and stories I had turned in as my end-of-year project. I wondered what Mr. C had thought of what I'd written. He had not returned my work, and I could not understand why. I went to see him during lunch and found his door locked. I knocked softly. The knob clicked and turned, and moments later we stood face to face. I gulped.

"What can I do for you?" Mr. C asked, his voice gruff.

"Um, could I have my project back, please?"

A watery gleam at the corner of his eyes took me aback. "I wanted to keep it."

"I have copies," I said backing away. "I just wanted your comments."

Tasting my heartbeat on my tongue, I whirled around and left. It did not feel like victory. Only shock that the words of a shy adolescent girl with fierce hair, a studded leather bracelet, and a lipstick-slashed face could have brought a middle-aged man to tears.

The last summer of my Southern California youth came and went. The day my mother took me to the airport, she was agitated and nearly ran down a pedestrian at the terminal drop-off. I was only too glad to get out of her car and out of her life. Grabbing my suitcase, I ran to the entrance, checked in, then ran to the gate, where I waited two hours for my flight to San Francisco. A strange fear she might follow had inexplicably seized me. I needn't have worried. All five years I lived in Berkeley, she only visited me once. But I hadn't escaped her. Not by a long shot.

It would be years before I deciphered the true nature of the connection to my mother. I couldn't see them or the way they would impact me any more than Marie Curie could see that the uranium she handled with bare hands would cause the cataracts that nearly blinded her, then a blood disorder doctors could not explain. There were whole histories inscribed within the cells of my body only time would reveal. And there were patterns inscribed in the deepest recesses of my mind I would repeat again and again, bound to them like a sleepwalker. But these were things yet to come. And things I had yet to learn.