BRENTWOOD, LOS ANGELES, CA
My first thought when I overhear them is that no one would mistake Emily for being the same age as our mother.
“Pricilla is her daughter,” the petite Filipino orderly is saying.
I had been looking for the social worker and paused just outside the door. They’re folding laundry, the welcome smell of the commercial fabric softener overpowering the other, ranker, smells of the nursing home—urine, dust, sterilizer, probably mold.
“Are you sure she’s not Mrs. Messing’s sister?”
I feel the question like a pinprick, not on the surface of my skin, but from the inside, where my soft organs live. I imagine the orderly nodding, because of course she’s sure. I am only forty-three.
“I think so.”
When I return to my mom’s room, it’s like seeing it for the first time: there on the bedside table are my notes, lists of medications, doctors’ phone numbers. Next to the trash can is a scattered pile of orange peels. A pale blue curtain used to divide the room is pushed back, revealing a wheelchair in the corner. I can hear the oxygen concentrator on the other side of her bed, pumping air into the tube beneath her nose. There is a huge vase of roses and hoary stock, sent from Guy, their colors bright against the drab, and on the muted TV, Fox News or CNN—it doesn’t matter. She just likes the company.
“Mom.” My voice cracks. “You shouldn’t make a mess, the nurses have enough to do.” I collect the orange rinds without looking at her and put them in the trash.
“I’m so uncomfortable,” she complains. “And I don’t like the nurse on duty tonight. She’s the one I told you about. Big Russian woman.” She motions with her arms, nearly catching the oxygen tube with her wedding ring. “She’s always bossing me around. She made me eat fish last night. Tilapia. It was so gross, Pricilla. You can’t imagine. You know what you can do? Go to Chick-fil-A and get me a sandwich. See if you can sneak in some gin, what does it matter! I’m dying anyways.”
I struggle with the window. “For the hundredth time, you aren’t dying. You’re rehabilitating.”
“Why do you want the window open? It’s ninety degrees out.”
The frame gives and a gust of warm air floods the room. I close my eyes and imagine the green parrots that flock to the palms and jacarandas before sunset, and the color of the sky over the Pacific—pinks and oranges and fog rolling in. I try to picture something beautiful, anything other than this ammonia-mopped room where I have spent the last two weeks. The chemical fumes stinging my eyes, drying out my mouth. I can feel it eating away at the lining of my nostrils.
My mother is waiting for a response. I can sense her annoyance. Mrs. Louise Messing does not like to be kept waiting, she does not like to feel ignored. But I need one more moment, just one. There are bars on the condo windows across the street. I close my eyes. The relentless pumping and whirring of her various machinery, the beeping coming from somewhere down the hall. I try to steady my breathing.
“Why can’t I come home?” Her voice is sharp now. “What’s the use of having a daughter live with you if she can’t take care of you when you need it?”
I turn back to her. She’s gesturing to the wallpaper peeling in the corner of the room and making a face. “You’ve dumped me in a real shit hole.”
“You didn’t mind it when Dad was here.” I try not to study her face, but I can’t help it. That etched delicate skin, the loose bit that hangs below the jaw. The orderlies’ comments replay in a loop. I swallow.
“Remember how you liked to have lunch with Dad in the courtyard? Do you want me to see if we can arrange that? It’s hot today, but tomorrow’s supposed to be nice.”
My mom purses her thin lips, clears something ugly and wet-sounding from her throat. “Do you remember that he died here?”
I’m not doing a good job of pacifying her. But I’m tired, the continuous buzz of the nursing home is wearing me down; the ammonia is making me dizzy. The room feels too small for my mother, and me, and all this equipment.
“That was a long time ago.” I sigh. “Places age too.” I start to put my notes away.
Her façade slips then. “You’re not leaving? I thought you’d stay for dinner. You need to tell the staff I want spaghetti with sauce—last week it was only noodles and meatballs. They’ll listen to you.”
“I’m staying for dinner, like always.”
We’re quiet for a moment. I can tell she feels vulnerable now. She pretends to be preoccupied with the lace on her robe. She needs me to stay, to be here with her. There is a repetitive ringing at the nurses’ station, as if someone somewhere in the facility is pressing a button for help and being ignored. I want—no, I need to get out of here.
“Did I tell you that Paul called?” I ask, trying to sound casual.
Her face lights up and for a moment I can see that old beauty. The sharp cheekbones; the expressive blue-gray eyes, once described as “glittering” in a review by the Times.
“Are they coming to visit? Did you talk to Hannah? Oh, I wish he hadn’t taken my only granddaughter to Italy. I haven’t seen her since, since—” She lets out a tragic moan. “Your poor sister.”
She won’t talk to me, my brother-in-law had said about my niece. He had called from their apartment in Rome, I could hear the faint wail of foreign sirens, of church bells. She’s got none of your coolheadedness, your reasonableness. I thought he might list every “-ness”. Cilla is: politeness, calmness, fastidiousness. Instead he rattled on about deadlines for the book he was writing with his colleague. How Hannah needed someone to watch out for her, how she was getting into all sorts of trouble. Caught smoking, ditching her Italian class—the last straw had involved the carabinieri. The police had picked her up for stealing nail polish from a department store. Paul was forced to pay an exorbitant fine. Cilla, please. You will come, won’t you? I’m at my wits’ end. Just hearing his voice made me think of Hannah, years ago, a chunky baby, nearly bald except for some fine blond frizz. Paul laughing at how her face scrunched up after sucking on a lemon slice, stolen from my sister’s drink. You don’t want to eat that, my love—Emily’s voice, clear and bright, ringing out across the distance.
“Hannah is acting out. She’s in trouble.” I’m careful with how to word this next part, my mom watching me. “He asked if I would come for the rest of the summer.”
Those steely eyes go wide. “And what did you say? Did you tell him I’m in a nursing home and need you here?”
“Almost exactly that,” I assure her, which is true. Only now the breeze coming from the window is blowing back the curtain, and I think I can smell the mock orange along the freeway overpasses, the honeysuckle bursting over fences and walls. What I mean is, I have an overwhelming desire to flee.
Mom gestures to the corner of the room, believing the conversation over. “Did you know they’re rounded like that so it’s easier to clean? Can you imagine? The urine and feces and whatever else, ick.”
“Hannah is fifteen,” I continue. “Do you remember what Emily and I were like at that age?”
“You were fine.” She smiles. “But Emily.” She looks away.
I press harder: “And Paul says Hannah is taking after her.”
“Well, she can come keep you company. The house is too big for you to be on your own.”
“She can’t. She’s in an accelerated Italian program, and they already have plans to summer in Puglia with friends. It would kill Hannah not to go.” I pause, trying hard not to sound desperate. “The doctor and nurses will take excellent care of you while I’m gone. I’ll make sure of it.”
I try to kiss her cheek, but she turns and I end up kissing the top of her head.
“So, you’re going to leave me here alone.”
“Guy can visit every few days.”
“With that girlfriend, what is she, twenty-three? He should have married you. I still don’t know how you messed that up.”
I try not to flinch. “I’ll call and e-mail. We could FaceTime on your iPad.”
“You’re dead set on leaving,” she says, eyes narrowed. But then, ever the actress, they fill just as quickly with tears. “I wish I could go with you. Your dad and I spent a whole summer in Europe before you girls were born.”
“I’ll bring you back something nice.”
“I should hope so—oh, I forgot. Did you find the social worker? I can’t remember her name—Jan or Jane, something with a J. She needs to schedule a psychiatrist appointment, so I can get something to help me sleep.”
“I couldn’t find her,” I lie. I had meant to, but then, the orderlies. Of course I’m the daughter. Of course.
I catch sight of myself in the mirror across the room. I remember when Emily and I used to think thirty was ancient. After forty, she assured me at my thirty-first birthday. That’s when the years really catch up.
It certainly feels true. There are faint lines around my eyes, a slight slackness in the skin around my jaw. Has there always been this much gray in my hair? I can feel my swollen calves, which my doctor told me was chronic venous insufficiency. There is a persistent ache in my neck, arthritis. A small scar on my forearm where a benign bump was removed, basal cell carcinoma. Signs that the body is not quite old, but youth is sure as hell receding. I look away when the Russian nurse comes in, holding a tray with Mom’s dinner on it.
“Good evening, Mrs. Messing,” she says, her accent thick.
Mom eyes her suspiciously. “I hope there’s plenty of sauce this time.” The nurse is polite and patient, even goes back to the kitchen to see if they have cracked pepper instead of the little packets.
While Mom eats she talks about the parties she and Dad used to throw at the house. Those were the days, she says, sighing. Composers and producers; actresses like her and screenwriters like Dad, all of them vibrating with youth and beauty. The world was going to be ours. I readjust the napkin so that it covers a larger section of her blouse. How cute the two of you were in your matching outfits, she says about Emily and me. I refill her water cup, ask the nurse for more Parmesan cheese. Everyone said I was crazy to have daughters so close in age, but I thought one could watch out for the other. And you were always so mature, so it worked out. I dress her salad, tossing it with the flimsy plastic fork. Do you remember demanding white wine spritzers at your twelfth birthday party?
Yes. I nod. I have a different memory that I think of often. I must have been ten or twelve years old—it was around the time Emily started to look more and more like a bewitching little version of our mother, and everyone wanted to snap her picture or dress her up. It was easy to feel lost in the shuffle. But this memory. In it I’m dancing with a woman whose oversize bangles make her wrists look as delicate as bird bones. We are in the living room, in front of the big window facing the sea, and she is swaying her hips and motioning with her red lacquered nails for me to mimic her. Side to side, slower, slower. As if you are kelp in the bay, she says, the ocean big and blue behind her. Move with the current. And Guy is there—he is in all of my early memories. Like a fixture in the house. Part of the support beams holding it above the water. We danced like that for him. Me feeling a little naked and raw in my light cotton jumper but unwilling to stop because I liked the way he watched me, only me.
“I should throw a party when I get home. Doesn’t that sound fun?” my mom says, stabbing a meatball with her fork.
I smile and wipe some sauce from her cheek. I don’t point out that most of her friends are dead. Or remind her that the house is split-level and nearly impossible for a woman in a walker to navigate, which is what she’ll be needing when she leaves the nursing facility—and I definitely do not mention that I have been talking to a real estate broker since her hospitalization.
“It’s not really such a bad place,” she says, looking around the room. She’s moved on to dessert. “They know how to make a decent rice pudding.”
My hand shakes a little when I pour creamer into her coffee. If I got on a plane tonight I could be in Rome in time for dinner tomorrow. Homemade pasta, fresh tomatoes and basil. Real Parmesan cheese, not the kind that comes in packets. And wine—maybe something I haven’t tasted before, a grape varietal I don’t yet know. It would be nothing like here. A break from this place. From Mom. I want to get home and e-mail Paul. I will be there. I am coming.
I feel her eyes on me as I pack up my things.
“You should dye your hair before you leave,” she says finally. “See if the salon can fit you in this week.”
“That’s a good idea.” I kiss her goodbye.
“I bet Hannah is gorgeous, she’ll look just like Emily did at that age. Beautiful, but not the brightest bulb. It’s good you’re going. You’ll have to send me pictures.”
She surveys my face. I try to keep it blank, unreadable. “Use my brightening mask when you get home. It’ll clear up whatever’s happening on your chin.”
“I will.” I shift my purse full of papers and snacks and bottled water from one shoulder to the other. “I love you, see you tomorrow.”
I stop at the nurses’ station and ask if the social worker can call me in the morning.
“She should be in her office,” one of the nurses says.
“That’s okay, a phone call is fine.” I point toward my mom’s room. “Also, could you make sure she gets a second rice pudding? She looks thin to me.”
Outside, I take several deep breaths. It’s twilight and the wind has picked up, shaking the palm trees and bougainvillea. Someone in the apartment complex next door is sautéing onions. I hear a baby crying; children are playing in the park across the street. Before I leave the parking lot, before I even turn the car on, I’m searching nonstop flights to Rome.
Copyright © 2019 by Liska Jacobs