My mother fluttered, never landing for more than a moment on her chair before bouncing to fetch the missing vinaigrette, ice cubes, or serving utensil. Every meal, even a midafternoon snack of sliced raw vegetables with dip, required constant expeditions to the kitchen and tremendous amounts of cups, coasters, creased paper towels, and accouterments. Her hands, too, were occupied, carrying, cutting, gesturing, and swatting the paws of an overeager cat, which kneaded its restless claws into her knitted dress.
The scene always had a pleasant air of disarray. The silverware did not match. The black cat batted spoons onto the stained carpeting. The table itself was unorganized; we only ever used half of it, the other half designated to assorted household junk—mail, keys, art projects brought home from school. The whole area was gated in by bookcases spewing volumes on Jewish culture, candles, yarmulkes, and a precarious pile of hats. And, of course, presiding over it all was my mother, with fifteen types of tea and a tenuous perch on her seat.
This bleak Chicago afternoon found me home at our table for the first time in months, off for the winter holidays from medical school. We holed up in our apartment against the plummeting temperatures, the wind audible against the floor-to-ceiling glass windows of our apartment. I dabbled into a milky over-brewed coffee, while my mom raced into the kitchen to retrieve a shrieking ‘chainik’ from the stove. “Shah,” she chastised the kettle.
“It’s freezing in here,” I criticized, lamenting the persistent under-heating of our apartment by our landlord.
My mom shrugged. “Really? I hadn’t noticed.” She poured steaming water, and then left again to fetch the sugar. From the kitchen, “I have extra sweatshirts you never took to school, if you want those?” I didn’t, and so ignored her comment, realizing I was complaining more for sport than for resolution. “Sweetie?”
“I’m good, mom.” I peered into the kitchen and at the fridge. I had forgotten the multitude of magnets we had. There were at least three dozen plastering every surface of the fridge, until it was almost impossible to see whiteness between the names of far-off places and old postcards. “Jeez that’s a lot of magnets,” I muttered.
“Huh?” My mom turned around in the kitchen to face me.
“Uh. Never mind.” She continued to rattle around in the cabinet for an extra sugar bag. She enjoyed her tea heaped with sumptuous spoonfuls of sugar, like warmed southern sweet tea, and it was never quite worth it to keep a quickly-exhausted table container filled. She dumped a bag of sugar on the table.
“How is the coffee?”
I debated whether to mention the over-brewing. My mother never drank coffee, so it was difficult for her to judge the brewing time. In fact, she loathed even the smell and only made coffee because she knew it melted the angrily awakened witch I was before breakfast. We had to flush the grounds down the toilet, dropping blobs of crushed beans into the bowl like shit, as she couldn’t stand to have the smell hover in our kitchen for any length of time. “It’s fine. It’s great. Thanks for getting it for me.”
The butterfly returned to her perch on her chair and faced me. My mother had generally aged well. Her eyes were still a luminescent blue, and her hair was now gilded, basking in a flattering shade of gold-blond. Her zealous application of sunscreen through the years had forestalled deeper wrinkles, despite her being in her mid-fifties. But what mainly masked her age was her energy, her constant movement, and the sense that her muscles were already loaded onto a spring ready to shoot off at the cats, after her children, or out for a morning stroll along the lakefront. She lacked the parked, stationary quality that middle-aged women can acquire, their bones becoming too reliant on the support of chairs, pillows, railings—people who would lean far over the table rather than jump up to get the salt.
“So, tell me more about this course you are taking in school?”
“Yea, it sounds so interesting. I don’t really know that much about it.”
We began chatting about my coursework in medical school, over rounds of coffee and tea and sliced red-pepper sticks.
“Don’t call it that.” I cut in.
“Don’t call it a cadaver.”
“Why not? Isn’t it a cadaver?”
“Yea. But, we don’t call it that anymore.”
“Oh. Ok. What do you call it when you cut open the dead body?”
“Well, when we do, we don’t call it a cadaver.” I lectured, as if every person on the street would know this detail of medical school semantics.
“Ok then, Princess, what would you like me to call it?”
“It’s a donor. And it’s anatomy class, not just ‘getting a cadaver.’ You make it sound like they are dumping a dead person off in my dorm room and I just stick it under my bed or something.” I gulped on air and made a puffer fish face. She emitted a nasal laugh and scrunched up her nose.
“Icky-poo. So when do you start anatomy class with your donors?”
“When I get back from break. I’m really looking forward to it,” I stated in a flattened tone, and took an extended draught from the diluted coffee. I was ‘looking forward’ to slicing through preserved skin and prying through deceased butt fat to search for tiny nerves and arteries?
“Are you nervous?” she asked.
“Uh. No, not really.” I tilted my head from side to side.
“It doesn’t weird you out at all?” She released an exaggerated shiver. She was the type of person that curled up under her coat in superhero movies at the sight of fake ketchup blood.
“No. I don’t think it will.”
“Wow, that’s so tough. I don’t know if I could do that. I think it would freak me out.”
“Yea. I mean, I just don’t think so. I mean, I’ve seen surgeries before, so I doubt it will be too strange.” I sipped my coffee. There was a pause. Why would it be too strange? Or maybe it was strange that I didn’t find it strange? I bet that is what everyone does on their first day of work—stick a knife in someone’s dead grandma.
“Well, it just sounds like you are having a fantastic time.”
I reached for my spoon to discover it was missing from the folded paper towel. My leg muscles contracted to pull me out of my chair, but my mother, sensing the absence of the spoon, was back at the counter before my backside was en route to a standing position.
“Here you go, sweetie.” She handed me the spoon. “Yea, where was I? Oh right. It’s just fascinating all the stuff you are learning at school. You know, I’ve been doing those online classes for fun, and maybe I should try a science one sometime. It would be wonderful to keep up with what you are doing.”
Because that’s how people learn medicine, Mum-sie, as a part-time hobby, I thought to myself. I bit the inner corner of my cheek.
Her face brightened with a new thought. “You remember, when you were a kid? I used to read the books on your list for school. That was really great.”
“I know. That was so fun.” My eyebrows rose.
“No, it’s true, I used to. I remember re-reading all those Shakespeare plays in high school. And remember we even went to that Shakespeare play out on Navy Pier? I forget what we saw there. Hmmm. Well, never mind it doesn’t really matter which one.”
“Helicopter parent. Cough cough cough.” My mom looked down at the head of the cat with its claws clenched into the knitted fabric at her thigh, its enormous saucer eyes earnest and prying. She stroked his unkempt oil-slick fur, snowy with speckled dandruff and missing patches where his neurosis caused him to yank out tufts. I motioned at the cat, “Gen-Gen’s hair is going to get into the food.”
“What? Oh, he’s just being friendly. I guess I can move the little Shlyme if he’s really getting on your nerves or annoying you but…”
“Never mind. It’s totally fine. I’m not annoyed.”
“It’s just that…”
“I’m NOT annoyed.” I ripped into my cuticles. My mint nail polish softened into the chewy texture of fruit leather, infusing my mouth with a chemical zest. Still, I couldn’t stand the residual rags of skin protruding from my fingertips and so I pinched them with my teeth, peeling them like potatoes until they spit bubbles of red blood.
“Still biting your nails?”
I shot my fingers away from my mouth.
“I imagine you shouldn’t do that in the hospital. What if you picked up all those germs and stuff? Jeez, I can only imagine what super-bugs you might find at the Yale Hospital. Aren’t you worried about that?”
“Worried about picking up something at the hospital? I mean, we hand sanitize. It’s fine,” I stated matter-of-factly, attempting to project detached confidence.
“I know. It’s just, you should be careful about your health, sweetie.”
“Uh-huh.” I breathed deeply. “I take care of my health, mom.” I couldn’t admit any doubts about hand hygiene or admit she might be right. We had been through hours of training on hand hygiene that she didn’t know existed. However, I should stop biting my nails. However, I shouldn’t stop biting my nails because she told me to. However, I should be respectful about her comment anyway.
“Have you tried putting on nail polish? Sometimes that can…”
“I think I’m good, mom.” I realized my body had tightened, as if my skin was dried out and cured by a salty sea into a chewy piece of prosciutto. I jumped up.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m just getting some water. I’ll be back in two seconds.”
“Oh, sweetie, I can get that for you.”
“Mom!” I burst out too loudly, before I remembered the stiffness. “No, I got this. Chill out. That’s not what … I know you are chill. I didn’t mean to sound harsh. I’m just trying to be helpful.”
As I stepped away, I mumbled, “I’m … doing great, I just don’t want to bother you.” I crossed into the kitchen and leaned against the magnet-covered fridge; a bottle opener from Germany poked my ribs. My eyelids paused on the down stroke. They felt heavy.
When I opened my eyes, my mom was in front of me with a deluge of words and motions. She splashed the coffee down the drain and returned the teakettle to the stove. “It’s okay not to like the coffee.” She busied herself futzing with the airtight storage container that sealed in the coffee bag. “Sweetie? Did you hear me? You can tell me if the coffee came out wrong, we have plenty extra.”
“I’m good. Mom.” Then I murmured. “Don’t worry about it. Just—can you just assume I’m good?”
“Listen. Shlyme!” She grasped the bursting paper bag. “I think I went a little overboard on the coffee front. So really you are doing me a favor.” While the new water boiled, she returned with a small stack of newspaper clippings, holiday cards, and photographs. “How is Shlyme doing?”
I didn’t reply. Then—her wings ceased fluttering. Nothing moved save wisps of steam curling from the kettle and the gentle rattle of the wind on the window. Her luminescent eyes rested inches from my matching blue ones, and then in half time, as if some maestro had called for an andante tempo, her hand draped my shoulder. I was as rigid as the fridge.
She, in the same lethargic pace, turned over the papers and tchotchkes she had saved for me, one by one by one—family holiday cards, our list of classic movies that we were still working on watching (with completed titles crossed out), the keychain I had forgotten, the packing receipt from the shoes I had bought her (“sorry, they didn’t quite fit”), the green nail polish (“Hey, maybe it’ll be good for St. Patrick’s day, not quite sure why I got this color”), an article about what pots to buy for a starter kitchen (not ripped but carefully scissored out of a local paper), a button with a funny slogan (it was so cute how she always liked those), an old picture of us (it was so sweet, I couldn’t believe she’d saved that) where my hair…
“Ha! Look at my hair!” I burst, and blinked, startled at the volume of my own voice. My skin slackened, and I giggled through my nose, “And that expression on your face.”
Frosted glass, the kind they have in bathroom windows, had encompassed me, but with “Ha!” the glass shattered, unleashing the full brightness of our apartment. The rooms radiated an almost unbearable yellow—curtains, couch covers, rugs, lighting—creating the aura of a sun that had long since abandoned Chicago. That’s the funny thing you forget about standing inside a frosted glass bathroom; it can stop everyone from peering in on you, blur out your rough edges, but it blurs out the sunny side too.
“Hey. So, how is Shlyme doing?” she ventured.
With her soft voice, the edges of the room started to melt like rainbow popsicles in that blinding sun, blending together harshly separated colors into a sticky mess. I blinked my watering eyes, forestalling the harbingers of an emotion I didn’t want to admit. I didn’t want to admit. I couldn’t admit … anything.
“Hey. So, how is Shlyme doing?”
Now that I realized the glass was there, what should I do? What could I do? The tchotchkes shone like a gold pile of relics in my hand, gilded like my mother’s hair with warmth and memories, entreating me to let go, to step into the incandescent glow outside the shattered frosted glass. But should I admit the coffee? The cadaver? The cat? The nails? What would that do? Would the glow just highlight scratch marks in an unpolished student?
“Hey, how is Shlyme doing?”