You Always Think You Have Someone Until You Have No One
When we were small, sun-kissed brown and juicy, we beach-combed for iridescent shells, beer bottle glass, and half-empty cans of Dr. Pepper. On the block, we dodged the boys wrenching Johnny pumps and the water flooding the filthy streets, soaking the pink ribbons of our Sunday ankle socks. The hydrant resembled the mouths of fat African cats. Some of the boys bore welts on their backs from when they had been beaten for sneaking money out of their mothers’ purses or getting caught slipping bottles of Colt 45 down their shorts. They were children, barely 10 and 12, but bored and thirsty. I don’t ride the bus four hours a day to come home to this, their fathers’ said, loosening their belts while their mothers stood cross-armed in the kitchen. The rest of the kids forked beans, rice, and fried plátanos off their plates. We all heard the screams and the thwacks from the stoop. Back then you didn’t really have to do much to catch the beats.
We never considered the children who didn’t have fathers who unbuckled their belts and mothers who tended to their wounds. Orphans. Raised in loveless, joyless group homes or forced to be adults as children wandering the streets with only a bench or the inside of a box in the back of a C-Town to call home. Once I saw a girl, younger than me, shimmy out of a box one morning as my friends and I pooled our change to a buy a hot dog outside of Sunset Park. We’d split the dog in four, we had agreed, and the girl took a comb out of her pocket and smoothed her hair. Even now I can’t get that out of my head — the child, the box, the comb, and her hair — and how we cannonballed into the cool water. How I forgot about the girl in the box — just like that.
I was ten and polite. Once my mother said well, aren’t you the brazen one before I saw the back of her hand sweep across my face. Hard. Knuckled. After that, my mother only needed to give me that look and I knew I’d have to wise up quick. I rarely saw that side of her hand again. For twelve to fourteen hours a day, she stood on her feet serving hot food, refilling ketchup bottles, wiping down counters and tables, taking orders and tabulating checks. She knew her math. We were poor and sometimes hungry, but my clothes were clean and my hair pulled back and braided, Vaseline-slicked and tamed.
The threat of eviction was always a constant but it never came to pass. We always had a place to lie down on our heads even if our refrigerator was anemic and the lights and gas sometimes failed to turn on. Even though the house was dark, there was still a house and why is it with the passing of time do we appreciate all the gifts we took for granted? I was my mother’s daughter and I was protected. I’ve written a book about all the ways in which my mother had wounded me over the course of the twenty years we spent together before I excised her from my life, but it’s taken until my forties to understand the ways in which she shielded me. How, one summer, she had stretched $10 a day in tips to stock our fridge with a bag of potatoes, chicken legs, and butter, and if you asked me now I could probably find 60 ways to make a potato.
I’ll never know the lengths my mother had to go to, or what she did to make sure that our home, and the fact that we still had one, was the one constant. We had shelter — a simple fact that so many of us, even now, so blithely take for granted.
Two years later, we traded up toffee skin, Dipsy Doodles, loose cigarettes (which we affectionately termed loosies) for a dime, and the stoop life for the pale and patrician Long Island where the whole of one’s life was conducted behind closed, manicured doors. The song of the year was Electric Youth, and for the first time in my life did I realize that the labels on my clothing meant something. Labels were no longer a source of information — hand wash cold, size medium — it was an indication of wealth and status. Labels became Benetton everything, EG Smith socks, Traffic jeans and crewneck sweaters from The Gap. We moved to a garden apartment on a street where it was against the law to touch the hydrants, much less wrench them. If you wanted to keep cool you lounged in your pool out back or lazed around, watching Beavis and Butthead re-runs, in your air-conditioned home.
I never watched MTV until college and didn’t have air conditioning until my twenties. But we had a home and every once in a while I procured a pair of “in” jeans and slouchy socks. Air conditioning in movie theaters was a rare, but appreciated, treat.
Suddenly, the maths had shifted — we went from calculating what we needed in order to survive to the glaring realization of all the things we didn’t have. We went from a life of simple addition and subtraction to AP Calculus. We became a country of wants.
When my mother died in 2015, I wondered what they had buried her in. I imagine she wore blue, the color of certain seas because she was simple in some ways and complicated in others. When I think about her, I see the red Pumas she laced up, the black skirts she bound with silver pins and the stockings that poured the sun all over her bone-white limbs. I suppose she wore something I’d never seen in the half-life since we’d last spoken. We’d been estranged for nearly two decades. You make it impossible for me to love you.
Did she wear blue? At first, part of me was relieved when I learned she was gone, but another part, a smaller, quieter one, wanted her as the woman I knew before her undoing. Before the hurt that would become a wound I would spend my whole life dressing. I wanted her waxed up and preserved as the woman who would do anything to make sure I was clothed, had food and shelter, the woman who still cracked potato jokes after our tenth day of making home-fried potatoes.
She was a lioness, protective of everything she loved, and I knew that no one could hurt me except her.
Two years later, all I could think about was my dead mother and diagramming the space between us, charting maps for the journey out, gathering my suicide tools — passport for passage. I was five again, climbing onto her lap and threading my hands through the thicket that was her hair. I belonged to her, and it felt good belonging to someone. Being a beloved property. Safe. I wanted to feel my hands in her hair. I didn’t want to be the girl, climbing out of a box, combing hers.
I’d devoted my life to not becoming the woman she was; I collected the Ivy League degrees and six-figure paychecks. Published the books she longed to write and rode on jet planes. I had her skin, her face, and her hair, but only a fraction of her resilience. She was a woman who did more with so much less.
The hardest words I’ve ever said, out loud, were: you were stronger. It’s a hard thing to admit — losing the war you always thought you’d won. Even harder still when you can’t face your victor.
In a smaller voice, I said, I’m coming back to you.
I never made the trip, but I lost the man who I’d considered my father, on the journey. I had become my mother, a woman, a life, he longed to forget and I was its constant reminder. In 2001, it was he in the car shouting about my damn wine lips. Why couldn’t I just let her go? For years, she was what bound us together — we had our war stories and how we survived, and that kept us going for a while. But then I had become the wound that would never heal or close. I had become a difficult woman who asked for too much. He had his own family, his own blood, and although the binds of blood are often tenuous, they’re still binding.
You always think you have someone until you have no one.
I have a handful of good friends because I trust few people. A friend of mine is hurting from a breakup with a man who has sheltered her for nearly a decade. We talked about money and the fact we don’t have it, that we’re good — dare I say great — at what we do but we’re bad at the logistics of it. No matter how much we work we always come up short. We’re in our forties and tire of debt and overdrawn bank balances.
We sat on the ground of my small balcony because I’m not the sort of person who buys outdoor furniture, and she confessed her money woes. That she may have to move back to New York and live with her mother. Move back to the city that has devolved into a bleached-white miniature mall — a far cry from the city in sepia we knew as children. We tremble and shudder to think. And while I love her and know her pain to be acute and real, it took everything in me not to say at least you have a mother to go home to. At least you have a home to go home to. I would never think to burden my friends with the weight of my sadness. I’d soon pitch a tent on the street than be a roving guest in their warm home. When you have no one to go home to, you go where no one can find you.
I have no one, only me, and sometimes this frightens me.
We forked expensive pasta into our mouths. My friend is a B-level heiress, but she wants to make her own name. Earn her own money. Her dresses are gossamer thin and beautiful but are often frayed and moth-gnawed. She likes to talk about the hazards of good breeding. Our friendship is the cream that skims the surface — we talk about books, art, and politics. Genteel topics for the well-educated and Twitter informed. We never talk about family. I don’t tell her that I can’t afford the meal we’re eating. That I don’t know how I’ll pay for January rent. That the thought of being evicted from my home is real and I’m not my mother — the woman who always had a plan and could fix any situation. I can’t MacGyver my way out of this even though I spend my days trying. You don’t know how hard I’ve tried. To my friend, I’m a funny writer friend who’s fine, fine, fine.
Then, she treated us to a bottle of wine and two glasses in I mentioned money. How I’m tired of freelancing and being an adult who can’t afford health insurance. How I’m tired of sending emails with multiple exclamation points asking for work. How it feels like I’m forever soliciting, begging. How I’ve watched everyone who once worked for me buy homes and glide by. My friend nodded and said there’s no shame in going home to your parents if you needed to. And I stared at her with eyes withering and black and blinked. All I could do was blink. I poured us another glass, finishing the bottle, and said I don’t have a family.
We are always reminded of our subtractions, the people spirited away from us. The world likes to show us our losses and we have to smile, grin and bear them. We have to go on even if we can’t go on. We have to endure the advice from people who have been there and know exactly what you’re going through and you bite your lip until it bleeds because although the platitudes come from a place of compassion and well-meaning, they don’t truly know your place of zero. That you have no partner to help shoulder the anxiety, no family to give you shelter. No thicket of wild hair to tumble into.
And you smile, smile, smile as the chasm between you and the world widens.