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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.
Copyright © 2019 by Liska Jacobs