My mother is only seventy, but she has the bones of a ninety-year-old, the marrow like lace. Ever since she fell when my daughter and I visited last summer, she has walked with a cane: a silver-tipped walking stick that she ordered from an antique dealer in Paris. She texts my daughter and me photographs of herself from Los Angeles. Dressed in culottes and a cardigan, she leans on the cane in the gardens of the Getty, next to the armless hunk of Henry Moore’s Seated Woman, in the parking lot of a bakery as she waits in line for a scone, on her deck above the Santa Monica Mountains. Every other day or so, she sends us these photographs, mostly taken by strangers. They cross the country to Pittsburgh and show up on my phone as I sit in Zoom meetings, and on my daughter’s phone here or at her father’s house. My daughter texts back an emoji of a smiling face, and I text back an emoji of a heart. My mother, who doesn’t know how to use emojis, replies with a description of the Getty’s latest exhibit – amazing – and the bakery – fresh cranberry scones! – and the view off her deck: sky clear tonight.
My ex-husband kept getting lost when he was eleven. He would ride his bike to the mountain trails behind his house and take a wrong turn, lose track of time and space and not know where he was. This was in Arizona, his home state touching mine. One afternoon he got so lost that he decided to spend the night in the forest. A helicopter found him. My in-laws used to tell this story to show their son’s persistence, which scared them and which they also admired. They called it the summer of crazy biking. But I call it the summer of their separation. His father had moved out the previous spring, and the son lived alone with his mother in their bloated house at the foot of the mountain. ‘Don’t you think you were trying to get their attention by getting lost so often?’ I asked my ex-husband once and he said no. He said that he barely noticed that his father was gone. ‘Those trails go on forever.’ Also, he added, it wasn’t a separation. His father simply moved out for a while. Early in our relationship, when I wanted to understand my husband, I looked at these mountains on satellite. The trails he’d taken resembled partings in a scalp, all leading back to a starting point. If I wanted to boil it down, I’d say that I left him because he always called that the summer of crazy biking, even when I pressed.
Six months after I moved out, my daughter stopped eating. That was two years ago, when she was twelve. She threw food into the garden beds when she and I had dinner outside. I found some old evidence this morning: a candy bar wrapper under the butterfly bush. I held it in my hand and the wrinkled, spent plastic made me think about mummification and that made me think about bones. The older I get, the more I see how one thing always has to do with something else, and the harder it is to sort or to explain or to boil things down. I’m sure that if I looked up bones on the computer, I would find many beautiful and interesting facts about them. Such as how they start soft in the embryo, then harden in the baby, such as how our adult bones contain the lead and arsenic we ingested as children, or that skeletons hold together only with the rubber bands of tendons. But these days, when my brain starts to flow in this way, making connections, I throw up a dam. To return to what I just said about my ex-husband: I believe that I left him because he called that period of his childhood the summer of crazy biking, meaning I felt that every serious conversation we had never addressed its real subject. But I also left him because marriage gets boring, because he and I were different, because I had turned forty and my father died when he was only forty-three, because I didn’t like living in the suburbs, because I was selfish, and because I wanted my own garden in the city, even though when I planted it, I believed I was doing so for both my daughter and me. I try not to lie, but I don’t know what to do about the lies I tell myself that I believe.
My mother still lives in the house that I grew up in, although it’s been remodeled so many times that it looks different. But the view of the Santa Monica Mountains is the same. Turkey vultures circle, and clouds wander the sky. If you walked down the street, along a concrete culvert, you would find a stretch of the San Gabriel River. In the late 1980s, I panned there for gold with my father, who was a water engineer. He told me about the prospectors who’d once camped along the banks. He told me about currents and spawning cycles. He didn’t tell me about the mercury washed in by dredge mining, the dead steelhead trout, the DDT from the valley’s fields. I didn’t notice the gray tint to the water. I didn’t feel each summer get warmer. I think I was perfectly happy, but then I know it wasn’t that simple; already, I was following my mother into bathrooms, inspecting the toilet for splash. She was at her office most of the time. She came to my bedroom at dawn in her suit, smelling of treacly, eighties perfume. She kissed me goodbye as, down the hall, my father made me breakfast. He went to my softball games and bought my ballet shoes. He drew the cat whiskers on my face for Halloween. ‘Good eyes,’ he would say if I found a nugget of pyrite in the river.
When my daughter stopped eating, her father and I took her to a hospital for an assessment. We waited, not speaking, in a room with plaid furniture. Later, as our daughter sat between us in the doctor’s office, she picked lint from her sweater, rolling the strands into balls between her thumb and index finger. The doctor said she should live at the hospital for a while ‘until we get these urges under control’. My husband said no. I said yes. I asked the doctor if we could be alone for a few minutes. The doctor beckoned for my daughter. ‘Come on,’ she said, ‘I’ll show you the unit.’ When I was married, I liked to think of myself as the calm one, even though my ex-husband was the true calm one. But in that small office, neither of us was calm. We yelled at each other. His face shrunk as he leaned into me. He said that I was going for the easier option, because that’s what I always did. She was our daughter and we should take care of her. ‘We don’t know how to,’ I said. ‘We’ll figure it out,’ he said. Then the doctor and my daughter came back into the room, and the doctor ended it all by saying, ‘This is what she wants. Of course, we can’t force you.’ She spoke to us gently and firmly in a tone she might use with people in restraints. Her father and I went to collect our daughter’s things from our two houses.
The day the Arcadia earthquake hit in 1987, I was with my mother at her office, doing my homework on the other side of her desk. My father had died the year before. My mother grabbed me and we got under the desk. The building across the street was mirrored, and in the reflection, I could see her office building sway. I thought, We are going to die. I felt more curiosity than horror, and I’m not sure why, since I knew what death looked like. When the building stopped shaking, my mother hugged me and said, ‘We didn’t need to worry. It’s earthquake-proof.’ My father had stayed alive on life support for four days. The doctors thought he might make it. Years later, my mother and I were sitting on the deck when I returned from college, and she said, ‘At first I was afraid your father would die. Then I was afraid he’d live.’ She was confessing to me, and I didn’t press her for any more honesty. I understood. My father was his brain, his knowledge of rivers, his newspaper spread out on the kitchen table, the books on his nightstand. He barely noticed his body, treated it like a costume. He ate poorly and didn’t exercise. Plaque accumulated in his bloodstream, stopped up a vessel in his brain.
After the first two weeks at the psychiatric hospital, my ex-husband and I took turns in family therapy with our daughter. Sometimes, the sessions were joint. We didn’t look at each other. Our daughter tucked herself into her chair, rocking and twitching her leg. Eventually, she told us what she had been doing. At her father’s house, which she called ‘home’, she hid her food under the mattress, and at my house, which she called ‘Mom’s’, she threw it into the flower beds. This had been happening for months. When she and I sat outside together and I looked away to refill my glass of wine or to slap a mosquito, she took food from her plate and tossed it over her shoulder. Across the table from her those nights, I was distracted by newness. I was buzzing with wine. I was happy that I’d finally left my husband and happy with my house, happy with the future that I was making. After that session with the psychiatrist, I didn’t go back to work. I drove to the house and went around back to the yard. I looked and looked as I used to look for gold in the San Gabriel River, using my good eyes. I found a piece of bread hardened to stone, a lamb chop, a radish that had sprouted. Black bacon. This morning, I showed my daughter the candy bar wrapper that I’d found under the butterfly bush, and she said, ‘God, that was a crazy time,’ as if it were all behind her now.
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