I drove home from a date on the cusp of tears. I wanted to cry, but the interior flood gates remained shut. It seemed like a perfect moment to cry with the dreary scent of perfume and hairspray saturating the driver and passenger seats. The darkness weighed in and around me. An obnoxious amount of time passed since another car flicked by. I felt like the road kept existing for me. I began to wonder how far my gas tank would take me. Ohio? Illinois? Maybe I want to go east. New York? Pennsylvania? My father always told me that, if I ever really desired it, I could drive all the way to Miami for a long weekend. He made sure I knew which highways ran north and south and which ones ran east and west. He hasn’t travelled much but, if he wanted it bad enough, I think he could.
My hands gripped the steering wheel. In a final attempt to cry, I tried thinking of something really sad like my mother dying or working a job I hate. I also tried thinking about the fourth grade boy who returned to school after being treated for leukemia. That had made my mom cry. We watched it on the local news. The boy walked through a channel of classmates clapping and cheering for his healthy return. I saw my mom’s cheeks grow red like a vodka reaction. Then her eyes swelled and I rubbed her back until the feeling subsided. Nothing was sad or happy enough in this moment for me to cry. I felt myself surrendering to the absence of emotion, the place I fear most where no hope or creativity resides.
The date was a pile of ash. It was like sifting through debris and rubble, trying to make it sound less toxic. When I asked for a glass of the house red, the waiter, with bleached hair and a broad chest, told me that they don’t really have a house red. I told him to bring me any red they had. He asked which blend I preferred. Lighter or darker. Smokier or smoother. I remembered my step father describing a red wine as light at my birthday dinner the week before. It was a lovely pairing with my entree of lamb chops and creamy risotto and crunchy green beans. A light red would be great, I said.
As I sipped my glass of wine, leaving cherry lip stamps on the rim, I tried to let my body sink into the leather booth. I wanted to release my weight and feel permanent. In a few more gulps of wine I would be right there. He drank water from a short, cylinder glass. The ice cubes knocked into each other like chilly bones. He drank cup after cup of water. Our waiter was quick and happy to refill. He carried the water pitcher to our table with a long smirk pulled across his face. He walked with one arm folded along his back like an English butler. I sort of expected him to have an accent.
There is nothing more deadening inside than scrounging your mind for light-hearted, substantial questions to ask on a date. Part of me relied on the slim chance that our conversations would be natural and cut smoothly like a crisp apple. But I realized, rather quickly, that instead of effortless transitions and unencumbered questions, I would be picturing a map of the United States as he listed all of the places he’s been. In a flirtatious manner, I told him that it might be easier for him to list the states he hasn’t been to because that would be a shorter list. He might have laughed, but I didn’t hear anything. He carried on with the list and I sipped my wine.
At some point during the meal we talked about shoes. What are your favorite pair of shoes and why, I asked. This was a question a short, bubbly girl had asked me at my old college. I remember being impressed with the question’s surprisingly personable nature. He finished chewing a piece of grilled Greek chicken and told me that white Nike’s are his favorite. He said he likes how a white shoe looks polished and I agreed. We also agreed that, although they are hard to keep clean, it is still worth buying a pair of white shoes. I put a ripe slice of avocado in my mouth and smiled. Then I decided to share my incredible dislike for black sneakers. They aren’t stylish. It’s not a good look. I can’t stand them. He shifted in the booth and I noticed a pink haze develop on his cheeks. Well that’s good to know, he said. I looked under the booth. His black sneakers were doubled knotted and staring up at me like two offended school girls. He laughed at my passionate hatred toward his shoes but I still felt bad. I apologized and ate a forkful of butternut squash covered in sprouts.
When the check came, I reached for my purse right away. It didn’t feel right to have him pay for the whole meal. I suggested that we each pay half. Actually, my exact words were, “Why don’t we go dutch?” I put my credit card on top of his fifty dollar bill and told the waiter to split the check evenly. Later, when I told my best friend about going dutch, she said he still should have paid. But I was the one who had a glass of wine and insulted his shoes, I told her. Still, she said, it was a date.
Before we left the restaurant I used the restroom. I walked down a flight of stairs, passed a hallway of oblong mirrors, and entered the bathroom. On my way out, I stopped in front of one of the mirrors. I looked at myself dead in the eye, trying to see if anyone was in there. Brown and white and black with swirls of hazel and tints of the slightest, most lenient green. Then I looked at my nose and mouth. My lips were stained red from the Dior lipstick I had put on in the car two hours ago. When a woman walked out of the bathroom I jogged back up the stairs.
Outside, the temperature was perfect, a mild January evening. I wanted to stay downtown and walk around or maybe grab a coffee, but I knew the only way to regain my solitude would be to let him walk me back to my car and say goodbye first. We walked side by side, passing bars and restaurants bustling with college students. Our conversation was recycled commentary on his unfamiliarity with the area and his desire to change that. At each corner, I pointed before we turned. His body jolted every time, proving his foreignness. When we reached the parking garage, I told him that my car was on the fourth level, thinking this would separate us but he walked up all four flights of stairs with me. I started counting cigarette butts and bobby pins and colorful splotches of gum smashed by a foot. I smelt the remnants of smoke. When we reached the fourth level, he made a joke about not having to exercise tomorrow after that climb. At my car, I initiated the hug. He pressed his torso into mine like a cold, firm handshake between men. I had a great time, he said. My eyes flickered in the foggy lighting. My words stumbled. We turned away from each other and walked our separate ways.
I sat in the running car for a while with the heat up and flipping through channels on the radio. I tried calling my best friend but she didn’t answer. She was probably watching a movie with her mom or cleaning or packing up her clothes to move back to college. I stared at the concrete wall in front of me. The solidity and permanence of it. My eyes relaxed, vision fading. I took in the balmy scent of my Jimmy Choo perfume. It is how I imagine an eccentric French grandmother’s cluttered closet to smell, with her vintage jackets and thin, sheer dresses and a tattered jewelry box filled with gold pendants and turquoise. I love how scents make me think up scenes, linking it back to where it was born.
My desire for a cup of coffee had faded. I wanted to be home, peeling the tights off my legs and collapsing into bed. I drove like a slow parade float out of the parking garage, waiting for the radio to acquire a signal. A drowning female voice cut in and out of the stereo in sorrowful fragments. I took a right out of the parking garage and started east toward the highway. On the corner, a black man, wearing a thick wool coat and leather gloves, played his saxophone. A young woman walked by and dropped a dollar into his hat. The man smiled at her and I smiled to myself.
As I merged onto the highway, the voice of Mina Fossati, an Italian artist, filled my car. Her voice flowed out of the speakers slowly, flattening onto the car floor. As the song continued, the impact of her voice began to rise, reaching the seat belts, the center console, the glove compartment. The sounds purged me. I started to feel heavy and permanent just as I had desired at dinner. Mina’s voice reminds me of what I expected Thursday nights to feel like as a young woman. Lonely and sorrowful, but sexy nonetheless. I stared at the road in front of me. Mina’s voice pulled me under. I let my body yearn and ache with her. The darkness weighed in and around me. My eyes were on the cusp of tears. There is a lot of gambling involved in the early stages of womanhood. Gambling that inflicts sorrow and loneliness I do not know how to bare. I began to think of all the ways in which I belong to myself. It was a quiet dialogue at first, muffled and insecure. Then, I watched it all come together once again just as it had months ago. The answer lies in Sue Monk Kidd’s book titled Traveling with Pomegranates. The passage reads, “Every woman needs to become self-mothering… To learn to take care of herself, to love herself.” The words hung in front of me as if I was driving solely to reach them. I thought I learned this months ago. I thought I had found the mother inside of me. Feeling a little happier, I drove on. Mina and I. We sang our way to the driveway of my home.
Self-mothering. It is a blanket I will always have to refold. It is scripture I will always reread. It is a taste I need to acquire.
The smell of hot garlic butter and shrimp traveled from the kitchen to my bedroom. It was a Sunday afternoon and I had just showered. I had just put on a grey cowl neck sweater with darker grey sweatpants. I combed and parted my wet hair, flicking droplets of shower water onto the wood floor. Lately, even when I don’t leave the house, I wear makeup. I tug a stick of brown eyeliner across my eyelid and nudge it into the outer corners, hoping to make my eyes more vibrant and fascinating. My mother tells me that lipstick can fix anything. A swollen face. A sad mood. A challenged complexion. I’ve come to depend on lipstick as if it’s properties are versatile and lifesaving like coconut oil or Vaseline. Cranberry shades are the best for me mentally. I prefer a rosier pink when my body won’t cooperate. Sometimes I don’t believe that lipstick will make me feel better. It can’t be true. How can a tube of berry colored paste have such a clinical result? How can it be a low dose prescription? A therapy? A yoga class? The healing properties are less obvious and disguised, but I’ve seen how it transforms women and I’ve felt the effects the way a pill sheds its skin inside me. With mascara I am more frugal, saving the dark wand for dinner dates or long days at school or my brother’s orchestra concerts when I know my mother will want a picture. I see it as a useful tool, a full proof remedy, only to be exercised on the most terminal of days when my limbs and mind grow agitated. I thought that Sunday afternoon would call for mascara. It’s a distraction. When I feel pretty, when my exterior looks pampered and organized, I expect my mind to follow, but this is hardly the case.
It was the beginning of January in New York City and I couldn’t think of any good reasons to get out of bed. In my defense, my mother and I were staying at The Plaza Hotel for the weekend so our bed was a chic king-size with satin pillowcases and warm cotton sheets; even the most dopamine-balanced mind would succumb to its bedridden pleasure.
My right ear pressed into the satin pillow. The hair around my temples grew moist from sweat. I was uncomfortable but unwilling to do anything about it. When we first arrived at the hotel, my mother noticed, as if by maternal instinct, that the bathroom had no counter space, only the slim, gleaming edge of an immaculately white sink which could balance one toothbrush and maybe a tube of lipstick. Despite the inconvenience, my mother was eager to bathe in the gold framed shower with a golden shower head and a golden soap holder. She showered every afternoon until her skin pruned. I, on the other hand, don’t remember if I showered once. I have no memory of the golden shower head or steam or stretching my toes against the mint tile. I just laid in our bed like a hopeless sweaty thing as my mother washed her arms and belly with the flower and herb scented soaps the hotel provided.
The shower water turned off. I heard my mother clear her throat and flip on the overhead fan. I imagined the hot steam as it began to melt off the mirror’s glass and evaporate into the ceiling. The thought of a wet, steamy bathroom depressed me more. I pulled my cheek away from the pillow and sat up. Sitting up was the first strenuous step in trying to convince my mother that I wasn’t clinically depressed. Mounds of satin pillows surrounded me. On the bed table to my right I saw a rectangular notepad with the hotel’s name curled into the top. I moved the notepad onto my lap. Then I reached for a black pen and began to describe the emptiness I felt. I was a shell. Tears swelled behind my eyes the way nail polish drops of the brush and onto a bare nail. At least I could feel something.
My mother came out of the bathroom wrapped up in two fluffy white towels, one on her head and the other tucked and hanging above her breasts. She looked like one of Mario Testino’s subjects for a towel series in Vogue. She sprayed her wrists and neck with perfume. By the time I wrote two full sentences on the notepad, my mother had already laid out her jewelry and heels for the evening and rubbed a coconut lotion into her chest. I stared down at what I had written and felt miserably worthless. I pitied my mother. She looked radiant and clean and ready to see the city. She didn’t deserve to be pulled beneath the concrete with me. Like any healthy woman would be, my mother had a thrill through her bloodstream. She was excited to call a cab and excited to eat sushi and excited to see Aladdin on Broadway. She took time to select her outfits and curl her hair.
As I watched her move about the room, I began to grow restless and jealous of my mother’s vibrant nature. I threw the duvet comforter to the side and swung my legs off the bed. Color and enthusiasm unfolded in my mind the way it always had when I believed that I could simply stand up and start anew. I thought about what I could do to get ready. Mascara, I thought, will liven me up. Perhaps some lipstick as well. I sat down in front of a full body mirror with my light pink Claudíe makeup pouch. In a slow, sickly manner, I set the makeup out before me. Achey and heavy, my arms continued to move the makeup out of its pouch until the products, like dominos, formed a straight, anticipating line. I looked at my face in the mirror and was horrified. There was no rosiness in my cheeks. My eye whites were dull and lonesome. There was no plumpness to my face. I looked flat and deficient and dead, but most of all, I felt pathetic.
Before taking the elevator down to the lobby, my mother asked me to sit in a teal velvet chair at the end of our hall for a picture. Like our bathroom, the chair had golden edges. Above the chair was a painting of a dark haired woman’s profile with pearls around her neck and a rose in her hair. I sat down and crossed my legs. For a while now I had stopped smiling with my teeth. I flattened my lips into a pink sneer and waited for the flash. Waiting. That’s all I knew. Waiting for sleep. Waiting for the next day. Waiting for our walk through Central Park to be through.
My mother showed me the picture in the elevator. The flash made every colorful thing more vibrant and every dull thing gloomier. I looked at my face and tried not to cry. There was no life behind those eyes. There was no passion beneath her chest. I looked and looked and looked until I memorized the face. There was nobody inside, I thought. There is nobody.