It was a grey midday in Moorpark, California, a sleepy suburb flanked by fertile farmland and soft rolling hills. I parked my brown Honda Accord in front of the tract home my father shared with his of wife of ten years and their three children. I rolled down the window. Ash blossoms left a vague, sweet scent on the breeze, and there was no sound but the distant, subtle swoosh of the occasional car on the main road. Turning to the passenger seat, I reached into my bag for my cigarette case. It was made of steel and had an image of the Queen of Hearts playing card on its face. It opened with a sharp click and closed with a bite. I stared at the cigarette, then put it back.
I turned the rearview mirror toward me. I examined my hair, ’50s-pinup pompadour in the front, tight ponytail in the back, and the deepest, darkest brown I could find in a box. Cloudy though it was, my hairline caught something and it shimmered: that creeping gold line. Roots came quickly when you went so many shades darker. Seeing it I chewed my lip; I always chased it, and it always reminded me.
My mother was golden, with shimmering blonde hair that framed her heart-shaped face and fell over her shoulders. Her mouth was plump and even, leashed discordantly by some inner law, and her skin shone like well-oiled, pale teak. Her laughter was loud and lilting, like a sudden rain on parched land, and her anger was as swift and vicious as it was inconceivable.
SHE WAS PERILOUS AND BEAUTIFUL.
She spent evenings on the bathroom counter with her feet in the sink, meticulously shaping her eyebrows into thin, controlled lines. She wore makeup every day without fail, even when she didn’t leave the house; various shades of frosted brown for eyes, lips and cheeks that made her brighter and more formidable. She shaved her legs sometimes twice a day, once in the shower and once in the sink, and she beamed with pleasure at her tiny feet. Her beauty filled her with pride and with fear.
Her children were her creatures, made in her image. I was to be not only beautiful, but intelligent and competent and capable, top of my class, but I had to do it on my own, because she did not know how to nurture it.
The last time I asked for help was in the fourth grade: math, again. I approached her in my “Lion King” T-shirt and leggings, a headband with an artificial flower on my blonde head, and made my request. She grabbed my arm and pulled me angrily to the foot of the coffee table.
WITH EVERY WRONG ANSWER SHE HIT ME IN THE FACE WITH HER OPEN PALM.
She grew dark and terrible, and all the fury and terror of her mothers was in her; she screamed that I was stupid, and her voice was like a venom that blurs and slows as it consumes, and it made my chest ache. She hit me in my face harder and harder and harder as if I no longer deserved beauty. My headband flew off, and she mocked me for dramatics and hit me again. I answered weakly whatever number I could reach through the fog of my mind. She hit me harder and harder and harder until all thought gave way to automation, all light dimmed, and self and identity disappeared into the black, shrouded land where no memory can reach.
A week later a tiny teddy bear in a bright, tiny dress appeared unannounced and unexplained on my bed, and I loved it with a love desperate and beyond reason.
And so I continued to trust though the storm could come without warning, and often did, but so, at times, did the sun, and I did not know who I was. No one would know any of this until I was grown.
I swiveled the rearview mirror away from my hair and looked at my lips. They were cracked and beginning to peel; remnants of red lipstick made dark outlines along the strips of dry flesh. I scrapped it off with a fingernail and reapplied the deep-red lipstick; I was pale, and I wanted the blood-in-snow look that Arthur Golden talked about in “Memoirs of a Geisha,” and not a speck of brown pigment was on my eyes, lips or cheeks. I dragged the lipstick with increasing pressure along the contours of my lips, as if to compensate for the makeup she was no longer wearing.
She stopped wearing makeup for good when she came to my apartment in a panic with a large cardboard box. Her once-bright hair was dull and disheveled, her face was bare, and her breath was heavy and stale. Frosted deep nude and silverstone were carefully sealed in brown paper bags with staples, as were detailed notes on index cards, among blushes in bare honey and eyeshadows in copper and bone. Half-used bottles of shampoo and conditioner, deodorant, a toothbrush, and a half-used tube of toothpaste each had their own bags with their own notes, and I looked up at her, confused. “Give this to the police,” she said. “It’s evidence. They won’t accept it but you have to convince them. I’m being poisoned.”
I pushed the rearview mirror back into place. I looked over my right shoulder at the front door of my father’s house. My father was at work, my stepmother and the children were inside. The children enjoyed it when Sister came to play. I turned my head back to center and lifted my chin back, the back of my head resting on the headrest, my throat exposed. I breathed from the tight knot in my sternum and stared at the blank, sagging ceiling of my car. I could not be in the present just yet.
“It’s paranoid schizophrenia, hun. Seems like narcissistic personality disorder , too. I’m so sorry, there’s nothing we can do.”
The memory of her words came to me more frequently now. She chose them carefully, and the gentle timbre of her voice soothed as it devastated. She was a nurse from the Simi Behavioral Health Clinic, and clearly she’d seen this too many times. I pressed my phone into my ear so I wouldn’t miss a single syllable. I was in a car, too, then, trying to make sense of things.
“Where is she? What should I do now?”
“She yelled at the doctor and ran out. There was nothing we could do. I’m sure she’ll find a way to call you soon. I’m sorry, this combination feeds into itself and is next to impossible to treat.”
“What’s her prognosis?”
“I’m sorry”, she said, her voice becoming softer, hushed and smooth, almost like a lullaby. “Poor. People with paranoia and narcissism typically don’t accept treatment. In their minds, they aren’t the problem, everybody else is. Her case is pretty severe. Any day now you could be the next enemy.”
“What am I going to do?” I felt lost and empty.
“You’ve done everything you could. She won’t get better until she agrees to, and, like I said, one of these diagnoses would be enough…The best thing you can do now is try to have your own life. I’m sorry.” I was twenty years old and felt like I’d lived a lifetime already.
In the two years since that day, I tried to have my own life. I couldn’t. Every sad memory of every sad day was a reminder that,
AFTER ALIENATING EVERYONE WHO EVER LOVED HER, I WAS ALL SHE HAD LEFT.
So I entered new sad days, completely powerless and out of my depth. I held her hand as she wept; the police wouldn’t listen, and her killers were closing in, so she bequeathed me with the secret of her AIDS cure, and charged me with its free dispersion across the world. I picked her up from jail (this time for vandalism) and I watched her petite frame walk toward me in a brown shirt and khakis two sizes too big, carrying a bag of toiletries in one hand and a stack of pencil drawings on wrinkled tracing paper in the other; I saw my face in new womanhood, rendered in thin, delicate graphite, her possession and her gift: “I drew these for you.” I bought her clothes for interviews she would never pass because her resume was (resolutely) three pages in eight-point font about blood ionization (the aforementioned cure, proprietary, but essential work history), her future multibillion-dollar corporation (this position was temporary), and the key to the origins of the universe hidden in the Webster’s English dictionary (I don’t know why this was included).
I sat in agonized uncertainty when she accused strangers and former loved ones alike of increasingly elaborate and improbable schemes to end her life.
I answered with hurt silence when she accused me of enjoying her suffering whenever I gently tried to disagree, and held my breath when she looked at me darkly and said in a dry voice, “You know something.”
I did not know what to do. The radiance that had awed me as a child turned into a dull, sick glow. It flared as it used to, without warning, only this time with a vicious intensity born of precious delusion, dearly held and consecrated. So she went from house to apartment to car to street to halfway house, and so she remained, waiting for a day of reckoning, when all the machinations against her would fail and she would rise above, infinitely wealthy, lauded and extolled, a vindicated genius and a savior of man, a day that obviously would never come. She remained in darkness. A shadow crept at the edge of the deep and she could not get out.
The air in the car was getting stale, even with the window open. I got out of my car and crossed the short, hilly lawn to the front door. I opened it and saw three towheaded children in the living room down the hall. As I removed my black pumps in the entryway, they yelled my name and ran toward me.
I put my pumps to the side and stretched out my arms to greet them. I let those three pairs of grasping hands take me into the living room. The three-year-olds, a boy and a girl, babbled questions, comments, and exclamations, while the youngest, at barely two, had a grin on her face and a determination to keep up. My stepmother greeted me and we chatted, catching up, before she went back into her home office to work.
Stacks of books and toys lined the walls, and my little siblings excitedly offered their playtime ideas. They enjoyed my reading but decided that was mostly for bedtime, they’d just played hide-and-seek, and nobody felt particularly moved to play house.
Ultimately, they settled on an old favorite: giving me a makeover . What they loved best was to brush my hair .
They ran to the girls’ rooms for supplies, and emerged with brushes, bows, hair ties, and barrettes. Setting me down on the plush carpet, the children, brushes in hand, encircled me like attendants waiting on an empress. To help them along, I removed each bobby pin one by one.
My hair came down in stiff sheets and I borrowed a brush from the youngest to get the product and the toughest tangles out. She looked up at me with soft, eager eyes, waiting patiently for her brush. When my hair was reasonably prepped for young hands, I returned the brush and bade them begin.
Gently they guided the bristles through my hair. They negotiated tangles and coordinated the colors of barrettes and bows. As they worked, my hair became soft and supple, falling over my shoulders in dark waves.
THROUGH MY PRAISE OF THEIR EFFORTS I UN- BURDENED MY HEART.
My brother sat to my left, working a section of hair until the teeth of the pink-and-gold brush glided cleanly through. He smoothed it out and draped it over my shoulder, shifting himself in front of me to drape my hair to his satisfaction. He looked up into my face, smiling, eyes big and brown and full of wonder.
“Your hair is so pretty,” he said. “Who made it?”