Saturday, January 17, 2009
“Wake up. It’s six,” was what my mother said to me that morning. She stroked my cheek gently, as if she were trying to give me a few more moments of sleep. “Baby, wake up.”
She jumped on my bed playfully, the way a toddler would as a cone overflowing with a cold, creamy substance covered with chocolate and sprinkles matching the milky flavor appeared before its unsullied eyes, yet she kept her softness.
I rubbed my eyes generously. The sooner I was able to see her face clearly, the better.
Her reply was a smile.
You look terrible,” she said as she moved my hair behind my ears.
I examined my mother’s face as carefully as I did every morning. Every spot of tight skin, the wrinkles by her slender nose, and the incredible depth of her charcoal eyes were displayed gallantly in the light of the rising sun behind us.
She sure was beautiful.
I followed her through our winding rooms to the kitchen. I picked out an apple out of the fruit bowl and ate it, slowly cutting off slices with a long, thin knife; my mother drank black coffee. As it happened every morning, my mother and I looked away from each other during “breakfast,” a total reflex after the seventeen years we had spent side by side. By the time both the apple and coffee were gone, it was close to half past six, which meant is what time enough to leave for school.
I rode a bicycle, courtesy of a patron anonymous to me, seven miles to school on most days. It was, of course, my mother who pounded this information into my head, in attempt to avoid any mention of a man in our measly family. I have never even had a clue as to what my father’s name is or was. But who could have gotten me a bicycle other than long lost pa?
The white bicycle, stained with mud and sand, was leaning against the wall in the main corridor of our apartment. It had its own area in the foyer, where the handlebars left thick marks on the white wall. With a sun like we had that morning, my bicycle would have radiated with a shimmer of glittery white, but it was dirty now, the lower bar spotted with rust. I began walking it outside, down the steep stairs, dried-up mud flaking off onto each of the steps. I turned around while the front door was still in sight and took another moment to look at my mother.
“Have a good day.” She yawned, but she wasn’t tired. I remember that when I was younger, my mom always woke me up with her fidgeting and her walking around the apartment at four in the morning. It was a habit that persisted and seemed to have kept her fueled.
As I reached the outside, I looked back at the gray building in which I lived. My mother was leaning out of the window at the corner of our home, her body outstretched and her arms extended into the air. She appeared as though she was trying to embrace the wind, the graceful air; trying desperately to become a part of it. In a sense, my mother was air, able to go through and around anything and everything, at all times. She was, had, and did what she wanted. The world was her respirator and she was spilling out over its surface. Ma mere. I watched her often, a result of her penetrating magnetism, and she knew it well because... well, the air sees everything.
The weather outside was warm for a late November morning. The hills parallel to our home were covered by a sheet of green and stood tall against the painted sky. I rode past them, my pace quickening every few seconds. I peddled faster to let the light wind flow through my hair and to beat the clock against the lengthy distance. Though I kept my eyes on the road straight ahead, I caught a glimpse of the hills every now and then: they looked like waves of the sea, rising and descending, rising and descending. I imagined myself jumping into waves like that and sinking deep into their waters, just as lucid and transparent as the air itself.
The trip to school subtracted thirty minutes from my weekday mornings. Because my mother never learned to drive and the city’s public transportation system constantly emptied every kid’s pockets, I put the excursion to school on myself. I didn’t have a license then. Anyway, where I lived was a walking town; there was a blister on every foot, no doubt. But my trips were pleasant and California was rarely ever too cold for a ride. The road had not changed during the years I spent at high school. The fact amused me like the everlastingly fixed view of the ocean from a hill down the road in the opposite direction from home.
High school days did not last long; I was in and out of classes, in and out of school. I came upon numerous acquaintances with whom I worked or sat with, but never spoke to with a feeling of absolute comfort. I went there everyday thinking, “I was just here yesterday. Why must I come back again?”
That day in particular was much louder than usual. The wind whistled against my bicycle chain and frame, the two clicking at each other in a consistent rhythm. A group of fire engines roared passed the school grounds. In numbers larger than on any other day, there were students gathered outside in the school courtyard and nearly no one in the halls. There was ruckus and music and shouting heard from the side of the school building, some kind of dance beat rising into the atmosphere. One boy was trying to sell his homemade substances and a girl was kissing her boyfriend by a tree. These things I did not particularly notice before.
I entered the building to seek refuge from the party outside, walked to my locker, and immediately towards the back of the building, behind which there was a patch of grass I liked to sit on. The robotic cycle of school embedded into my head the idea that greeting the lockers every morning was a necessary ritual. So I sat on the grass and waited until eight o’clock.
Before I knew it, the school day was coming to a close. I spent it sleeping and daydreaming, thinking about my lack of academic motivation and working just a little. A few times, I tried to recall whatever moments I may have spent with my father but none came to mind. There wasn’t a single a face in my memory that I could match to his. I wrote down what I did not want to forget before the last bell rang, walked to my bicycle, quickly unlocked it, and rode back to the same house I left during the morning. The ride back seemed longer. I was always anxious to be home.
From the road a block away, I could smell the warm scent of alcohol traveling out of the open windows of our apartment and it hit me harder and harder with every meter that brought me closer to the front door. Carrying my bike, I climbed the stairs up. Our front door was open; the smell of cigarette smoke filled the corridor where I leaned my bicycle against its spot on the wall. As I walked it, a rush of at least those two fragrances entered my nostrils and lit my senses.
My mother was sitting against the back door, near the terrace, with two sleeping women and a man at her sides. She looked up at me and stared, then closed her eyes and reached for her glass bottle of Johnny Walker, but her hand landed on cheap wine. The man kept his eyes on my mother the entire time I stood in front of them.
”Don’t mind, baby,” my mother said. “Don’t bother.”
I felt an aching frustration and an itching to breathe easy so I left my mother and her companions on the floor, smothered by their smoke and reoccurring indifference. My bicycle was, gladly, at hand. I rode on it for two hours, until my calves ached outside of my body. I stopped at a hill with another spectacular view, one I did not remember seeing before. There I stayed; I ate a bagel I pulled out of a dumpster earlier that day.
When I got home, the dark had settled into the sky. The door was closed, but this time, unlocked. My mother’s friends were spread out in the apartment, all asleep or in a coma. It was all the same for drunks. The one with the long, red hair was on my mother’s Turkish rug with a towel wrapped around her body. A small bird stood perched on the windowsill of my bedroom and it hopped when it moved. My mother was not around.
The bird flew away.
I looked towards the field west of where I stood and there saw my mother, quite beautiful, among the grass and other plants. I took the rear staircase to the ground floor and walked to the field. Mother was sleeping deeply, like her comrades, bottle in hand, and a trail of spit rolling down her chin. Her hair was let loose and she wore only a t-shirt over her underwear. I did not shake her, nor did I say a word. I lied down beside her and thought about my father again. I felt a drop of rain and raised my mother up as best as I could without disturbance and carried her into the gray building we lived in as her bottle of whiskey dropped to the ground.