“Eating alone again, I see.” His tongue tickles my left ear as he whispers this, sliding past my shoulder to slip into the place across from me in the diner booth. “This is getting to be a habit.”
“She was tired. And I don’t like conversation over breakfast, anyway,” I reply, hoping that for once he’ll get the hint. He just tilts his diamond-shaped head to one side and smirks, his tongue continuing to flick in and out. The waitress comes by to take his order: rabbit, live, and a bowl of water. I look down at my plate and concentrate on my bacon and eggs over hard, hoping he’ll just find a newspaper and not torture me. But no.
“I’d like to sup with my baby tonight…” In the shower, she calls herself Laverne, and she sings Cole Porter into the microphone that doubles as her bath brush. Her adoring audience stares up at her, cocktail glasses frozen at their lips, so captivated that they forget to take a sip. On stage, she resembles the heroine of an overwrought romance novel, the kind her grandmother used to read. Her slinky dress is an emerald green that sets off her flame-colored, waistlength hair and her flawless ivory skin.
Outside the shower, she is Kathy Jane, brunette and thirty-five. She favors khaki slacks and cream-colored blouses that blend perfectly into the off-white walls and sand-colored carpeting of her workplace. She would actually look stunning in emerald, but jewel tones call attention to the wearer, and Kathy Jane is terribly shy. Hyperventilate-in-front-of-strangers shy. Can’t-look-anyone-in-the-eyes shy. The kind of shy that breaks her into a cold sweat when she runs into someone in the restroom, that reduces public transportation and night classes to hypothetical, mythological concepts. Painfully, pathologically shy. But not socially anxious. “Social anxiety disorder,” the internet tells her, “is a fear of social situations so severe that it causes major problems in our overall functioning and quality of life.” And in this era of private cars, Amazon.com, ATMs and 24-hour supermarkets with self-check-out registers, Kathy Jane functions just fine.
His mother is dying. He stands in her sterile white hospital room, a needle in his hand. Can he do this? He can’t even boil a crab without a twinge of regret.
Tubes snake into her nostrils and down her trachea. Behind her, machines beep and lights blink. The clock on the wall ticks away the seconds, the minutes, the hours.
This is what she wants, he knows that. At least, he thinks he does. What if she changed her mind? This helpless wisp in the bed doesn’t even resemble the mother he remembers. Why would he think he still knows her thoughts?
By her bedside, he waits for a sign. But there is no sign.
The IV tube feeds the vein in her right arm, her emaciated arm that will never link with his again, whether he does this or not. He has only his own limbs now, hands that tremble as they insert the needle into the feeding tube. He takes a deep breath.
“I love you, Mom.”
Then he guides the plunger home.
Image: Death and the Maiden (1915) by Egon Schiele. Source: Wikiart
An excerpt from Umberto Eco’s essay from 1990 (collected in How to Travel with a Salmon and other essays). Yes, this really is our library.
I walked west, into the sun, straight up to the rock formations that sat on top of the hill. The lichen encrusting their cracked and layered sides somehow gave them the look of granite, and weathering, and great age, although I suspect they aren’t that old at all. Nor are they as hard as granite; they’re only the soft and crumbly serpentine and sedimentary rock that make up what geologists call “San Francisco Melange”.
My eye loved the mottles and textures of the rocks. My camera lens made them boring. I tried to change its mind. No luck. I’d been clicking and snapping for a while when a flash of mustard flickered in the corner of my eye. There was a climber clinging to the side of one of the big rocks, in the shadows. Deep in my fight with the camera, I hadn’t noticed him — and likewise. He hung from a ledge on the rock face, stomach pressed against it, all of his attention lodged in the tips of his fingers and his toes. He had no room left in his brain to process my footsteps on the gravel-like path, or the clicks of the camera shutter.
He scuttled like a spider, a slow, careful spider, across the boulder while I clicked and clicked, looking for just the right angle to capture a deep groove carved into the side of a rock. Neither one of us heard the crunch of the hikers coming up behind us until one of them said, “Look at the hawks.” I looked up and saw one, two, three hawks wheeling in circles, reddish-brown against the blue sky. No — it was two hawks, and something black, a crow or a raven, screaming, screaming as it dove and stabbed at its enemies. How had I not noticed that?
Driving home, under the first bright blue sky that I’ve seen in three days, I notice That Tree: the one that clings to the bare exposed north face of Mt. Davidson. It leans far, far forward off the rock shelf that it clings to. All of its skinny branches lean farther forward still. Seeing it, I think of a woman walking in a storm, with her back to the wind, hunched forward to keep warm, with her hair blowing straight ahead, clinging to her face and pointing the way. I’ve never seen a leaf on That Tree. And yet, it doesn’t seem to me that it’s dead. Only beleaguered.
Arriving home, I smell the earthy sharp sinus-clearing perfume that eucalyptus gives off. It comes from the skinned, decapitated tree trunk across the street, the tree that we all thought the incompetent tree trimmers had killed. They hadn’t.
I notice his feet, shiny and plump, too plump; distended from all the fluids that drip into his system from the tree of IV bags beside him — his “dancing partner,” he calls it. The smooth pink skin contrasts against his yellow untrimmed toenails.
But his voice is stronger than it was last week. He sits up in bed, and later on he even shuffles his dancing partner out to the public sitting room beside his private room, where we all sit and sip coffee and visit. Just like at home. We discuss his discharge from the hospital in the future tense, not the subjunctive. We mean it.
Afterwards, I follow a little girl in a pink and purple tutu towards the lobby. She tiptoes down the hall, hand-in-hand with her father. Outside, the sun has finally burned the fog away, and dead leaves sweep circles on the concrete. They chase each other in the wind, like children.