When I was a kid, I used to sit up nights and pray my mom would never come home. When I was 15, my prayers were answered, and I was placed in foster care. I walked away from our roach-infested apartment in Los Angeles. I walked away from reusable TV dinner trays, and our small rabbit-eared black-and-white television set, and charred electric stove burners, away from brooms used on the carpet, and promised to never look back.
Twenty years later, I am in the wet woods of Portland, at a writer’s workshop in my first and only dorm room, and I think the same thing I think whenever I’ve done anything worth bragging about. If she could see me now.
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The summer my mom and I moved to Los Angeles I accompanied her to school. I’ll never forget the first time I walked onto her UCLA campus. The brick buildings looked like churches. It was the biggest school I'd ever seen. I thought it was perfect. It reminded me of a place where vampires would go and hide at night. I saw girls, with their hair swept up in a thought-provoking ponytail. I saw sweaters. I saw jeans. I saw books, and books, and books. I saw a place where people came to think and eat ice cream and go bowling. Even then, I was just blown away by it all.
My favorite time was when we were in class. I’d sit there, my coloring book propped open. I’d study her sitting beside me. I’d tap my crayon when she tapped her pencil. I’d turn my page when she turned hers.
Sometimes — like in her Japanese class — she’d write a couple of characters at the top of a piece of notebook paper and tear it out and hand it to me. I spent the rest of the class practicing Kanji. Just like her, I thought.
That was before she was totally crazy. Later, after one of her boyfriends left her, when I was around 7 or so, she began to blur the lines between truth and fiction. Money was tight. Her behavior was shifting. This was when she invented the game Chase Toast.
One night, my mom leaned in close. A sheen of sweat on her nose. Her slitty lips dry. Her face was small and round, with dark red blush.
“Hey, Miss … Miss,” she said.
She swatted her free hairs away. The hairs that escaped the overall order of things. She slept in giant pointy pink curlers, her head resting a foot above the pillow. When she slept this way it reminded me of a game the other girls played at slumber parties, Light-As-A-Feather-Stiff-As-A-Board.
I imagined her pink curlers making her levitate and carrying her off into the distance.
“Miss,” she said, swatting at my blankets. “C’mon, let’s go chase toast.”
I sat up, my hair partially stuck to my cheek, a curl trapped with my thumb and forefinger against my nose. One cheek the color of a candied apple, the other its usual tan.
“Hmm? Malm?” I mumbled with a thumb plunged deep in my mouth, tongue flicking it, and swooping past the back of my new teeth. I must’ve been around kindergarten age. There are memories of being sleepy in school the next day. Tricking my eyes open.
“Toast! Let’s chase toast!”
“Ohfay ...” I slid like oozing jelly out of bed.
There were three different Ships diners in Los Angeles at the time. One in Westwood, one 30 minutes away in Culver City, and another 20 more minutes away on Olympic and La Cienega. Ships was your typical diner with '70s décor except for one amazing facet: toasters. There were toasters on each table so they handed you a stack of white bread and you could toast it yourself. This sounds like no big deal, but it was huge. To have the agency to make our own toast. Everyone likes their toast different. The right golden hue, the right amount of butter.
Chasing Toast meant hopping on the bus and going to all of the Ships diners and making our own toast. All three. The waitress came to us with a stack of white bread. Three pieces cut diagonally in half. I sat in the booth, perched on my knees, stacking my grape jelly. I wanted to be armed and ready. The perfect piece of toast came with butter and grape jelly. Not the mixed fruit. Not the strawberry. Good old-fashioned gooey fake purple grape. I was the boss at Chasing Toast. I ordered myself. I made the toast myself. At some point when the sun started peeking through the blinds, I fell asleep, my head sticking against the pleather booth or on my mom’s lap. It was fine. It was more than fine to sleep there, among the white mugs that had tan rings around them. And the matching saucers and warm plates that always came with the warning, “Careful, it’s hot.”
If anyone tried to make any racket around me, my mom would smooth my hair over my ears. Pet my head. She’d tell everyone to hold it down. “The princess is sleeping,” she’d say. She carried me like a little baby bean next to her chest all the way home from the last bus stop and she never complained that I was heavy. If I startled she’d whisper, “Shhhh ... Shhhhh, the princess is sleeping.” It made those nights magic.
She told me she was a ballerina, a black belt in karate, fluent in 10 languages. Thin, rich, poor, tall, a secret agent. She told me so many great stories. Then there were the times she was down. Down down down. I’d sleep beside her on our matching twin mattresses that sat atop wire frames and folded in half like a taco. If she stayed still for too long I’d hit her arms with a flat hand. Sometimes I’d find her dazed there in the afternoons, her feet flopping over the edge of her bed. I’d check her breath — is she alive?
By the time I was 15 she was a full-blown sometimes crazy. She locked me in closets without a lock, ground me for months — but then she’d go out dancing, leaving me with my own key. The full-blown was only sometimes.
After I was put into foster care, I eyed her suspiciously during visiting hours. No longer my hero.
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If she could see me now she’d almost certainly look at the landscape, at the luscious campus where the workshop is taking place, with its bridge and the cafeteria with all the dessert choices, and be tickled to her bones through and through. She’d pick up some strange '50s film speak and say that it was most certainly splendid. She’d drink Lipton tea with her pinkie finger out, even in a paper cup, and ask politely, “May I have some lemon? Just a little …” and as the adult cashier, a little bored with her job, pointed to a metal bucket filled with sliced lemon — she’d squeal and prance. “Oh! Oh! Oh!” like someone dropped ice cubes down the neck of her shirt.
I never went to a traditional college, so this big old beautiful sturdy chunk of academia at Tin House Writing Workshop blows my mind the same way it was blown when I accompanied her to UCLA.
If my mom were with me she would have seen my dorm room, and suddenly it’d break the dream. She’d think it was too good for me. Too big. Surely she could sleep in my spare bed. Surely she could sit and audit my workshop.
I’d try to explain to her, “No, Mom, this is mine. Mine. Not just anyone can walk in here and stay. You have to apply.” I’d have a hand on my hip for emphasis.
“Oh, come on, it can’t be that hard.” She’d already be storing her clothes away in the spare closet in the spare room. Like that, she’d slice my hopes.
She’d find the religious people on campus and make friends with them. She’d drag me to them, overjoyed -- gleeful like a present. “This is my daughter!” she’d exclaim, like, Can you believe it? Can you believe I’m old enough to have a daughter this age? And big … she’s so much bigger than me!
If my mom were with me she’d pick at me in the morning, wiping the dust off my face with her spittle. She’d become a mama gorilla and I’d be something to fuss over — not in private, but in lines at the cafeteria, in workshop, in the bookstore. I’d feel her everywhere, wrapped around me like a band of mosquitoes.
Then back at my dorm room, she’d compete. She’d tell me about all her offers. All her offers from publishers and agents, all her offers of marriage, of dances.
If I took a drink at a cocktail hour she’d narrow her eyebrows at me, yet she -- the stone-cold sober one -- would be convinced she was doing an accurate depiction of a ballerina on the front lawn.
Of course, there was the night that I wanted so bad to be alone and be a silly goofball that I actually did go back to my room and I played some music and danced around the spare room by myself. Had she been there with me — especially if there were some Bee Gees on my iTunes — it would have been like when she let me wear her shoes.
She'd put on a Bee Gees record and stood tall and put her arms out and I swooped into the empty cup of them and she twirled me around and we danced. She slid me through the middle of her legs. Flew me forward. She extended both of her arms like she was measuring yards of fabric and I stretched on my tippy toes so I could match my arms to hers and then we slowly turned together, my one arm gliding across the length of her collarbone until we were one long extension of one another, attached only by fingertips.
It was my very favorite thing to be. And still it is what I’ve become — an extension of her.