Breakfast of Champions
I’m staying at a friend’s apartment on the Upper West Side for a couple of nights. It is high in the sky, at least thirty floors up. The apartment’s expansive, westward windows overlook the six lanes of chaotic traffic of Broadway and Lincoln Center and its landmark fountain at the middle of things, with its transparent arches rising and collapsing, again and again.
It is early in the morning, and Mrs. Walters is in the kitchen, serving my friend, Jeff, breakfast. She is slender and all angles. Her hair is colored to the shade of copper blonde. Her youthful looks penetrate through her weariness and the loss of the years.
Mrs. Walters is the mother of my platform-tennis partner when I was a teenager. We played together for four years, traveling around the state and country to multiple tournaments. Twice, we were ranked number one in the country. Though we played very well together on the court, my partner and I didn’t get along particularly well off the court. To be honest, I always liked Mrs. Walters better. She was consistently nice to me, and I always looked forward to getting a ride home from her after practice. It was easy to spot her driving into the parking lot of the country club because Mrs. Walters drove a metallic blue conversion van, with tinted, fishbowl-like windows. She often played Donna Summer and the Bee Gees.
I met Jeff through my husband when I was twenty-nine and still living in the city. They played basketball together until Jeff’s knees started to give out. He is a magazine journalist, and writes about people who run too far and bike too far and climb too high, and in general, place themselves in life-threatening situations. Ever since I’ve known Jeff, he hasn’t experienced much success in the area of love. He meets women who know how to throw punches and plates, among other things. Not surprisingly, girlfriends come and go, often punctuated by dramatic exits. A wife, at this point, seems out of the question.
Ten months ago, Mrs. Walters lost her only son. He was forty-nine. His name was Doug, and he lived in Telluride, Colorado. Late at night, after a party, he had stepped outside to smoke a cigarette and didn’t return. I never heard the exact details of what happened, but people say that he slipped and fell and hit his head and became unconscious and landed in a snow bank. By the time someone had found him, Doug had frozen to death.
Have I mentioned my mom recently lost her mind? In her new world at the psych ward, the phones are tapped, her roommate wants to kill her, and the doctor has designs to kidnap her so he can use her as a subject for his covert experiments in a lab tucked underneath the abandoned streets of inner-city Detroit. You remember this conversation when you can’t find me, my mom often says over the payphone located in the corridor of the ward. This is after the suicide attempts, the stockpiling of valium and oxycontin amid the small city of prescription bottles that resides on her bedside vanity, the midnight trips to the emergency room. I can’t breathe. I’m not going to make it.
On the Upper West Side, things are different. My mom isn’t here, in the apartment overlooking the fountain, but she is also not a patient in the psych ward, awaiting another round of electroshock treatments. Instead, she is somewhere else, an unspecific place where she goes about her former life as an unhappy mother, wife, and friend. She is waiting for my phone call to tell me what is wrong with my brothers, her husband, and the growing tribe of grandsons and granddaughters. I wonder how Jeff and Mrs. Walters know each other, how they ended up in this apartment amid the storm clouds that have gathered over the city. After all, Mrs. Walters lives in Rochester, Michigan, and Jeff lives on the Upper West Side, two locations that don’t often intersect. But then I remember about Doug’s unexpected death earlier in the year and realize that she probably needs someone to take care of.
As I stand at the threshold of the galley kitchen, watching Mrs. Walters busying herself with the preparations for breakfast, I wonder if she’ll remember who I am, if she’ll recognize my face after all this time. It has been at least twenty-five years since her daughter and I won the championships and had our picture taken with the trophy for The Birmingham Eccentric. My hair was shorter back then. My favorite shirt was a pink-and-white-striped rugby shirt that I often wore with a purple turtleneck underneath it. Her daughter and I each proudly held a silver platter in our arms, our youthful smiles captured in black and white.
Outside, it’s raining hard. So hard, that the streets are flooding. Powerful sweeps of water rush around the corners and empty out into the sewers. Litter and nondescript debris float on the small riverbeds like miniature life preservers waiting to be grabbed. The dirty city water is up to our ankles, and our socks and shoes are drenched.
Thankfully, I’m inside now and my socks are dry. Without saying a word, I sit down at the table with Jeff. Without looking up at me, he continues to eat his eggs and toast. The rain lashes against the gray windowpanes. Somewhere, further away, there is a crack of lightning. Two eggs sizzle in the pan. The strips of bacon pop and spit. Mrs. Walters puts a plate of eggs, two pieces of crispy bacon, and an orange slice in front of me. There’s toast, too, she says, pointing to a plate of perfect triangles of buttered golden brown toast. You must be starving after all you’ve been through.
I take a swallow of orange juice and it tastes like the best glass of orange juice that I have drank in my entire life. The sweet tartness hits the back of my throat, blooming there like an extended starfish. Jeff looks up at me and nods silently. Shadows and light dance in his glacier-blue eyes before he returns his attention to his half-finished plate. Mrs. Walters is back in the kitchen. She cracks another egg. The pan sizzles with butter, and thin wisps of heat whirl up from its metal surface.
She must be expecting another guest soon.
My Mother’s Stories
I’m bleeding, she says. I have my period. Mom, I say, you’re eighty years old, you don’t get your period anymore. It won’t stop, she pleads over the phone. Blood’s everywhere. Her voice is panic, her voice is I’m going to die, her voice is don’t leave me again. It’s been this way, most of the time, ever since she suffered a breakdown four years ago. Since then, there have been nine psych-ward stays, forty-six electro-shock treatments, and five nursing homes.
I ask to speak to the caregiver. The even-tempered woman comes to the phone and explains that my mom is not doing so well. She refuses to eat, take her meds, drink water. This is a reoccurring problem, getting my mom to agree to live. I imagine her in her bed on the second story of her home in a quiet suburb of Detroit. It is fall, but it is not cold yet. Autumnal warmth gathers on the windows. Dead ladybugs and fishflies collect in the groove between the tattered screens and dusty panes. Her room smells of sickness, dirty socks, and orange peels. My mom wears the same clothes from one day to the next—a blue plaid shirt that my sister and I bought her at Talbot’s the last time I was in town and elastic waistband pants. Flakes of dandruff decorate the black thighs of her slacks. Her hands shake. Underneath the worn quilt, her feet shake, too. They won’t stop.
Her father dropped out of school after the ninth grade and never received a high school diploma, she says, because he had to support his mother after his father left her for another woman. After the Great Depression, he learned the basics of becoming a stockbroker, and eventually became one of the top brokers in Detroit and earned a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. He went from Cadillacs to Packards to Lincolns. He was a McCarthy man. One of the boys. He collected classical records. Often I would wake up in the middle of night, she says, and he would be conducting Beethoven’s Fifth with a bottle of Scotch.
I’m going to hurt you, she says. I’m afraid I’m going to hurt you. Her rage is lopsided, subdued by medication. She paces the length of the kitchen, wearing her beige down coat that hangs to her ankles. I’m trying to get her into the car so I can drive her to her therapist appointment. You have no choice, you’re coming with me, I say. Aren’t you the boss, she says. Always telling me what to do.
He did it for the money, she says. He never would have done it unless he needed the money. She says it happened more than once. She tells me this story about eight months before the breakdown. We sit in a coffee shop on the Hill. It’s cold outside. A brisk draft kicks up every time the door opens. It happened in the middle of night, she says. She was seven years old. Her father woke her up, whispering into her ear, We’re going on a trip. Just the two of us. Warm liquid slips down her throat. It tastes like apricots and cough syrup. He retrieves her coat and drives her away. There are other people. A man behind a camera, lights are perched on high legs. Another man with a large belly grabs her by the arm, tells her to undress. The lights are blinding. She can no longer see her father. It’s a game, the man says. It’s only a game. There are other children and men. They straddle each other’s backs. One girl cries for her mother. Another man pours a glass of something. Here, drink it. She feels drowsy and awake at the same time. A man gropes her, slaps her bare cheek. Her skin stings. She wants to tell him to stop. There is flesh, sweat, nicotine, and more apricots. There are groans and screams. The night turns and turns itself over. It never ends.
I hate men, she screams. I hate them all. This is when she is drunk. Red-wine drunk. She is a howling dervish of rage even though she can barely stand up. I’m nine, ten, eleven, twelve years old, and my older sister is running upstairs and unplugging the phones, so she doesn’t call her ex-boyfriends and ex-husbands. Quick, get a trashcan. Lock the door.
This is a true act of love, she says. I’m kneeled before my mother in the sitting room on the second floor of her home, clipping her toenails. We call it the blue room. Her nails are crusty, hard, and yellow. The bottoms of her feet are dry and callous, patches of white at the knobs and balls. I clip and clip, collecting the nails on the glossy cover of Vogue. The snow begins to fall outside.
They’re coming to get me, she says, her words fatigued and slurred. They’re going to march me out naked into the square—and the dogs are going to come after me. My mom is in the hospital again, and I’m talking to her on the phone. I ask her if she’ll reconsider taking her meds, maybe eat some breakfast. They already gave me fifteen pills, she argues. They’re trying to drug me because they want to take me away. They’re coming soon. I can hear them in the walls.
I can hear the nurse’s voice in the background, the one trying to get my mom to take the Xanax and the antibiotics. More than one nurse has told me that the urinary tract infection is making my mom crazy, it’s what happens in elderly women, their minds becoming a slipstream of delusions. I want to say, I know this, but my mom is a different kind of crazy, not just UTI crazy. They’re coming to get me, she says. In the middle of the night. I’m already gone.
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