This page contains:
- Disregard for personal autonomy
- Child abuse
- Mental health issues
- Self-harming behaviors
I was twelve when my mother was born. Twelve or thereabouts. If I’d been older, I could have said things like I never wanted to be a daughter; I don’t have a filial bone in my body. Relatives could have tilted their heads at me, insisting I’d change my mind. But I was twelve so I said nothing. I had no relatives.
I was twelve, I had decided. Crumbs from my boxed birthday cake still littered the linoleum. That Tuesday, I’d celebrated alone on the floor of my living room. (What twelve-year-old has figured out furniture?) I didn’t have the right candles, the thin colorful ones of just the right number and just the right weight. I lit the candle I did have—a large, maroon lump in a glass jar, which my neighbor had given me the last time I’d forgotten the electric bill. Or maybe the time before that. It smelled like sandalwood and patchouli; that’s what the label said. I watched the flame flicker in the dark a minute, but couldn’t bring myself to sing.
Did I make a wish? I don’t remember.
The apartment was cold. In winter, the apartment was always cold. Sometimes, I watched my breath fog the air and imagined the moisture crystallizing, a snowflake suspended in the space just past my lips. More often, I piled blankets on top of myself—thick, itchy things I’d gotten from the state store—and stayed under them until the air felt too heavy to breathe. I wondered if the weight of the blankets felt like the weight of a person, if this was what people meant when they said things like nestle, snuggle, safe.
I didn’t know.
When I was little, I didn’t know I needed a name. I had one, more or less. I had a letter of the alphabet to claim kinship with, a syllable I could be called: M. And I had a number—an impossibly long set of digits meant to distinguish me from all the other M’s. Presumably there were other M’s, orphaned kids born at that exact spot in the rotation, but I’d never met one. Even in the Holding, surrounded by other childless kids, a J was the closest I’d come. When I’d started school after moving into the apartment, I’d been thrilled to find a V, until she told me she wasn’t V at all.
It’s short for Veronica, she explained, in the days when she’d still take turns with me on the swings. What’s yours short for? she asked.
I didn’t understand.
Like, what’s your whole name? she asked. Like it was obvious. It was obvious to her. She already knew daughters gave you names with meaning, homages to relatives or landscapes or loves. Veronica had a name so strong, you could cut it off at the initial, and it would grow back, like an earthworm severed and regenerated. She had the kind of confidence that assumed everyone else was the same. Like her, I must have a name to follow my letter. Like her, I must be, had to be, whole.
I didn’t correct her.
Instead, I watched her turn in slow circles, wrapping the swing chains tight in her fists, then kicking off, spinning at dizzying speeds. I’m named for my great-great-granddaughter, she said. It struck me as more greats than anyone deserved. Greedy.
But I was greedy too. After that conversation, I kept a running list of names M might be short for. I wrote them on my homework, but my teacher complained. Then I kept them inside, like a lemon drop tucked under my tongue. I recited them in a whisper when I couldn’t fall asleep, a rosary of who I might have been.
My daughter’s daughter’s daughter could have been Moira or Madeline or Molly. Her favorite flower Magnolia or Marigold. Before I knew mercury was a poison, I clasped the possibility of it in my fist. Imagine the breadth of an entire planet; imagine the warmth of being closest to the sun. Mama was an M word too, like more or moor. I played in my mind like I was a movie star, gave myself an alliterative, musical name. Marguerite Magnolia. Moira Moor. Or I told myself I was singular—Cher, Oprah. Majesty.
But Veronica’s daughter must have told her I was only M, a letter given by the government to those who broke the chain. Those who shopped at the state store where everything was discounted; those held in group homes or alone in apartments, next to neighbors who cashed checks as a reward to check on them; those best kept at a distance from the moment they were old enough to be left alone, which wasn’t very old at all. Before my mother was born, I lived alone, and after Veronica, I swung on the playground alone, and then I quit attending school altogether. I sent my work to the teacher in a brown envelope, my address marked neatly in the upper left. My letter, my number. Nothing so bold as a name.
When my mother was born, I thought she would kill me. Six feet tall upon arrival, she towered over me. The other grown-ups in the room looked from me to her and back again. Maybe it skips a generation, they said, shrugging. Or maybe it ran in the family. Who could confirm I’d ever been a baby, even if I’d spent my whole life feeling small?
My daughter died when I was born, so I grew up an orphan; my daughter died when I was born, so in a sense, I killed her. I had no son. People said it wouldn’t matter anyway because sons tended to be deadbeats. They said I’d still have been an orphan, more or less. There’s a reason they call it sonreliable, they said, as if part of the word weren’t still reliable. But anyway, I had no son and no daughter, and orphaned girls are—maybe rightfully—suspicious. At least they were when I was growing up. Occasionally people would reach out—that neighbor, a bus driver—but for the most part they steered clear. It marked you, being orphaned at birth. You broke a line meant to be unbreakable. If you were welcomed into another family, who knew what else you’d break?
The week my mother was born, I broke my ring finger. This seemed to prove their point. But I was twelve, a child—that’s still a child, isn’t it?—and my mother was screaming, crying. Too loud, too large.
Already she was growing, without putting on weight. Her body stretched above me, elongated like the shadow of a monster in a scary cartoon. Her howls were sized to match. I felt like she’d been crying all her life. I was so settled in my quiet, not comfortable but at least … accustomed. And my mother was not quiet, not from the day she arrived. When she wanted something, she screamed. And she always wanted something.
I didn’t feel capable of screaming. But I proved capable of throwing my fist into a kitchen cupboard, battering my knuckles and breaking my ring finger at the joint. I had to bring my mother with me to the emergency room. She charmed the staff. They set my finger with pursed lips and averted eyes, the whole time throwing her smiles, asking was she okay?
I didn’t know if she was okay, honestly. Still, I bristled at the question. How was I supposed to care for her? I didn’t know care. I knew cold sweat under blanket piles, the heavy headache of eating birthday cake for three meals because it was all you could afford. I knew the kind of silence you carried in your muscles, every tendon tensed like a rubber band about to snap, and I knew how it felt for that silence to break, over and over again, until it shattered bones.
If I’d had a daughter, I could have gone to her, crying. How do I do this?
If I’d had a daughter, I would have had a name. A nickname. She would have used it, tenderly. It’s okay, minnow, let me help.
I would have been different, if I’d had a daughter. And if I’d been different, maybe things would have turned out differently.
When my mother was born, the state tripled my allowance. Smiling daughters from local agencies left care packages at our door: flowery soaps and fluffy towels, colorful games to aid in my mother’s development, blankets soft and warm as literal lambs. Look, I said to my mother, the first time a delivery came. Look what they’ve sent for us.
Look, I said, when the first winking cashier added extra items to our cart. Look what we’ve been given.
Back then, it felt like luxury. What did I have, before her? A letter, a number, four walls, a check that didn’t cover much. Electricity but no heat. Cold water but no warmth. Every month was a series of small decisions: milk or eggs, canned vegetables or canned beans. The week I bought myself a birthday cake, I missed all the staples. I remember quoting a commercial that played back then, too often: You can afford a little extravagance. But could I? If extravagance was all I could afford?
After my mother was born, the apartment flooded with possessions. Clothing—sweaters and shorts and pajamas, more clothes than anyone could wear. Books. Soaps. Lotions. A bed frame and a mattress.
Every mother is a little miracle, one of the charity ladies said, handing me a camping tent and picnic basket. We’d never been camping. I’d never picnicked. But the point was my mother should. She should have that opportunity—every opportunity—the charity ladies insisted. Who doesn’t want to give their mother the world?
The first week I brought her with me to the state store, every employee stopped me. Congratulations, I had no idea you were a daughter, soak it up, it goes so fast. A woman who had followed me more than once, certain I was shoplifting, put her arm on my shoulder and teared up, talking to me daughter to daughter. Having a mother, it’s just like … it’s like having your heart walking around outside your body. She sniffed.
I nodded. My mother reached for a bag of chips wedged beneath too many others; I saw the packages shifting, and jumped to try and stop the fall. Excuse me, I said over my shoulder, darting away.
Oh, of course, said the teary-eyed woman. I know just how it is.
That first trip, I filled the cart so high I struggled to push it to the register. My mother’s allowance felt like a backstage pass to satiety. I bought us bundles of grapes and bags of peaches, knee-high containers of nuts, leafy greens that could double as houseplants, steaks too heavy to carry, bottle upon bottle of Mother’s Milk, a creamy formula specially blended to meet a mother’s daily needs.
My mouth watered looking at it. My eyes stung. I told myself I was just another overly-sentimental daughter, soppy and tender. But a stranger in the checkout line looked at my mother and said, Oh, I could eat her up, and calm settled over me. I wasn’t the only one. I wasn’t the only one who looked at my mother and felt finally, my belly might fill, my body might steady and warm.
When we were finished, the cart was so full, I left a bag on accident, and a green-haired girl in a store smock ran after us, put it in my hand. She wasn’t more than sixteen or seventeen; she couldn’t have enjoyed working there, but she ran after us anyway, and she grinned at me when she passed me our things.
Look at that, I said to my mother. Look. There’s more.
I smiled all the way to the bus stop. Together, we sat on the bench, and I reached into that last bag. Let’s have a treat, I said, pulling out a package of cookies. I split the shiny plastic and handed her one. She inhaled it, snatching another from my hand. Whoa, whoa, I laughed. Slow down.
I took a third cookie from the package, but when I bit into it, my mother screamed. She screamed one long, piercing shriek. Shh, shh, I said. But already she was reaching for me. She dug her nails into my face, prying my mouth open. Hey, I said, trying to laugh it off, stop. She clawed at my mouth. Stop, I said. It came out muffled. She was tugging at my tongue.
I gave her the rest of the cookie I’d bitten, and she pulled away to eat it, then grabbed the package, clutching it with her lanky, overlong arms. When the bus came, I tried to take the cookies back, and my mother shrieked again, biting my arm so hard it bled.
They’re just cookies, I told myself, as the bus pulled away. It doesn’t matter. They’re just cookies.
By the next stop, she had eaten them all.
Not long after, the charity ladies stopped by with Valentine’s gifts for my mother.
I hadn’t celebrated Valentine’s Day since the year I spent in school, the same year I got the apartment. Before then, I’d been kept with the other orphaned kids at the Holding, where there were no holidays. When I started school, I reveled at the celebrations. I drew meticulous spiderwebs for Halloween and overflowing cornucopias for Thanksgiving. I ate sugar cookies shaped like pumpkins, and then I ate pumpkin pie. I sucked for hours on a single candy cane. Just before the winter holiday, the teacher gave us each a book wrapped in shiny paper. The whole class opened them at once, flinging packaging in all directions. It fluttered in the air, flurrying like snow.
Near Valentine’s Day, the Daughter-Teacher-Alliance had brought in spare shoeboxes, and I worked carefully, covering mine in red and white paper, cutting out perfectly symmetrical hearts. My classmates had written their names on their boxes, bold and bright. M didn’t take up much space in comparison. So I wrote it all over the box, again and again. The day of the party, I placed my box in the corner of the table and waited.
I wasn’t sure what would happen next. Maybe our teacher would walk around, drop a valentine into each of our boxes, the way she’d given us a book? Maybe we’d fill them with dry beans like the rain sticks we’d made in art class and spend the afternoon making Valentine’s music together. Maybe …
But no. My classmates were pulling out folders and plastic bags and envelopes filled with tiny cards, and each card had a name.
Where are your valentines, M? the teacher asked.
I told her I forgot them. Because I couldn’t say I didn’t know.
The teacher tsked. In that case, she said, you should probably put your box away. It wouldn’t be fair to the others, would it? To give you one when you didn’t bring them any?
My cheeks burned red as the hearts on my box. But I nodded and shoved it under my chair.
On the bus home, Veronica’s head appeared over the seat in front of me.
Hey, M, she said. You want this?
She held out a paper valentine with a red sucker attached. I froze.
Her best friend’s head popped up beside her. What are you doing? she moaned. You can’t give that to her.
I don’t care, Veronica shrugged. I’ve got extra.
Nooo, her friend moaned again. Don’t you know what she is?
I wanted to die. Veronica shrugged.
You’ve got to be careful, her friend insisted. There was an orphan girl at my old school, and one day we were on a field trip, and she didn’t bring a sack lunch, so this kid’s daughter made him share. And next thing you know, that same kid’s daughter was choking on her sandwich.
Veronica’s brow furrowed, considering.
She made his daughter choke, the friend insisted. They don’t want anyone to have family. You give her that sucker; she’ll probably make your daughter’s heart stop.
Veronica pulled the sucker back. She looked at her friend. Is this like stepping on cracks? she asked.
Worse, the friend said. Way, way worse.
Whatever, Veronica laughed, but she sat back down and didn’t speak to me again.
I remembered the playground, the first day she’d spread herself across two swings to make sure there wasn’t room for me.
My daughter says you don’t got any blood, she’d said.
My whole body had burned red, disproving her.
At the end of the year, I left school. I told myself Valentine’s didn’t matter, holidays didn’t matter, none of it mattered. Then my mother was born and strangers brought her candy, flowers, a card the size of our doorway. And on everything—everything—they wrote her name.
My mother wanted a story. My mother wanted a drink. My mother wanted a snack, a blanket, a hug. My mother wanted a story, a snack, a drink, a hug, a blanket, a song, a story, a drink, a hug, a blanket, a song, a snack, a hug, a song, a snack. A snack, a snack, a snack.
I stopped saying look what they’ve brought us. I knew better. None of it was ours because none of it was mine.
I lugged in bag after bag of groceries, more food than I had eaten in my life. I couldn’t keep the cupboards full. My mother wanted cookies, wanted milk, wanted apples, wanted ice cream, wanted carrots, wanted cake. My mother wanted. More and more and more.
I poured my mother a glass of milk. I poured her another. I made her breakfast, over and over again. All morning, I made her breakfast until I made her lunch. She ate her lunch. She ate my lunch. She ate her dinner and another, a meal I no longer thought of as mine. Each night she snuck into the kitchen, desperate for more. I’d startle awake and find her there, washed with the blue refrigerator light, scooping jelly from the jar or gulping milk. Come back to bed, I’d say. And she’d scream so loud it would nearly knock me off my feet.
I said only no, quit, enough. And then I stopped saying much of anything to her, like if I kept silent, she might follow suit.
But she only screamed louder, ate more. The state had tripled my allowance, and still, I couldn’t keep her fed. The more food we brought home, the hungrier she grew. I ate less and less to try and keep her full. Lights dotted my vision. My body grew heavy and weak.
The first night we ran out of food completely, I broke down. I’m sorry, I said. I’m so sorry. I’ll get more tomorrow, I promise. I tried to scoop her into my arms, to stretch myself to hold the length of her—you’re my responsibility, you’re mine to care for. She leaned into me. I took a deep breath.
She bit my lip so hard it bled.
Then she licked the blood from my mouth, smacked her gums, and howled.
In my hunger, it was easy to think the only problem was food. Later, I remembered other things. Like the bed.
When my mother was born, the state gave us a bed. A frame, a box spring, a mattress. I had no idea beds had so many parts. I had slept my whole life on the floor, head propped on my arm. I was a kid without a raft spying a yacht. Ginormous, I remember saying. Like real words couldn’t capture the breadth.
If I’d had a daughter, this too would have been mine.
The charity ladies sent my mother these unbelievable satiny sheets. Cool to the touch, they somehow still held warmth. I twisted my body across the mattress, tucking the ends under the corners. It left me out of breath, but the result thrilled me. The bed looked comfortable and the room looked full. Tears sprang to my eyes again, a want that welled up unexpectedly, that said this time, now.
But when night came, I found myself once again on the linoleum. My mother had taken the itchy blankets from my pallet on the floor and piled them between her bedspreads for extra warmth. I tried to crawl in with her, but I couldn’t find a point of entry. In the bed, her body starfished—her thin limbs stretched to every corner of the mattress.
I sat against the frame, hoping the warmth might reach my shoulders. I prayed my chattering teeth wouldn’t wake her.
But she did wake. Over and over throughout the night. I found her in the kitchen, wolfing snacks. I found her in the hallway coloring the walls with every crayon she owned. I found her in the bathroom, slathering lotions across her body. The product made small mounds of white against her skin. Empty bottles littered the floor.
I said, No, quit, enough. Enough.
But there was no such thing.
At the state store, my mother helped herself to muffins, to apricots, to ice cream bars. But she also grasped for marker sets, greeting cards, towels. Once, in the checkout aisle, she seized a phone charger and wailed so loudly, every eye turned to us.
You don’t even have a phone, I pleaded, and that green-haired girl laughed a little, for my sake.
My mother continued blaring like a siren.
Please, I said. Please, we can’t afford—
My mother stood and put her face closer to my ear. My head jerked back, instinctively.
I pointed to a box of protein bars I’d hoped to hide in the laundry basket. We don’t need those, I told the green-haired girl.
She nodded and rang up the phone charger. I watched my mother bite at the plastic casing. My mouth dried.
While I bagged our groceries, the security guard doted on my mother. I wondered if she was distracted enough, if I could sneak a bite of—
The green-haired girl tapped my shoulder. I jumped.
Sorry, she said. You just … forgot these.
She handed me the protein bars. I stared at them. My mother’s whole fist would have fit inside my open mouth.
Keep up your strength, the green-haired girl said, with a wink. She flexed a bicep, laughed at it, and walked away.
At home, my mother wanted paper, music, snacks. I gave; she wanted more. Nothing was enough.
When she wasn’t looking, I hid the protein bars between the garbage bag lining and the trash can. Long after I finished them, I’d sometimes stop while replacing the bag. Just to let myself see the box. Just to know kindness had been real.
The neighbor cornered us in the stairwell.
Look at you, she cooed at my mother. You’re so thin.
My mother beamed like she had won a prize.
You know you have to feed her, M? the neighbor laughed, still looking at my mother. Her tone was a wink, but I bristled anyway.
I do, I said. The same way I’d said it to the doctor, when he’d made that same joke the week before.
I do feed her, I’d said. I feed her constantly.
You’d be surprised how much they need. They’re still developing. They need a lot.
The neighbor offered to drive us to the store. I figured she wanted to evaluate me, to make sure my mother wasn’t going without. But I thought about the freezing bench at the bus stop and about heat pouring from the vent of the neighbor’s car, and I agreed. She double-checked my mother’s seat belt twice before we left. But she smiled the whole time we were at the store. Just like this, she kept saying, as I picked all our regular items off the shelf. That’s exactly right. I didn’t tell her I did this every time. I didn’t correct her when she saw me grab doubles and triples of items, and clucked, I guess it can’t hurt. Better safe than sorry.
She helped me load the groceries into the car and tutted the whole way home, watching my mother devour everything within arm’s reach.
She’s been very hungry, M, the neighbor said. That much is obvious.
I dug my nails into my scalp like my skull was a fruit I could peel.
You’ve got to be careful, said the neighbor. To go this long without eating … she could end up really sick.
So, she hadn’t noticed. The cupcakes my mother swallowed whole in the bakery aisle; the lemons she ate in produce, rind and all; the sour gummy candies shaped like paper dolls that she bit with uncharacteristic care, one limb at a time. To go this long without eating … my mother hadn’t gone five minutes.
I calculated quickly. Do you mind taking her inside? I asked. I can get the groceries.
The neighbor nodded at me and offered my mother a hand. She laughed at a plastic container emptied of raspberries, at my mother’s juice-stained face. My mother was eating berries by the fistful, mashing them with her palms, licking the juice from her hands, her cheeks. Beside her, the pits of six peaches were staining the neighbor’s suede.
Stop, I said, to no effect, but the neighbor just cooed.
Someone’s made a mess, she laughed. She helped my mother from the car, held her sticky hand. Someone’s hungry, isn’t she?
I moved slowly, unbuckling my seatbelt only after they’d gone. I popped the seal on a box of crackers and stuffed handfuls into my mouth. I opened a package of cookies and ate an entire sleeve. On my way inside, I smashed a jar of nuts into our mailbox, the plastic buckling as I forced the lock closed. I buried packs of fruit snacks in the flowerpot outside the neighbor’s door. My mother had started to scream.
Sorry, said the neighbor, as I brought in the first load. I really can’t stay. Can you just drop the key by when you’re finished?
I nodded. The neighbor ignored my mother’s wailing, hugged her gently, and left.
My mother had been eating apples. She had at least six cores in her hand. She watched me carry in the groceries. She didn’t blink. The way she tracked me made my cheeks burn.
Hey, I said, trying for lightness.
My mother shoved the apple cores into her mouth. She was going to choke. I could see it; she was going to choke. Please, I begged. Spit them out, please. Spit them out. But she gnawed on them like a rodent, spitting out only the seeds and the stems.
Not long after, I tried to slip out, to dig some fruit snacks from the neighbor’s plant. When I came back, my mother was standing in the hallway.
She held up a butcher’s knife.
Oh, god, I said.
Listen, I said.
Be so careful, I said.
But I think I was talking to myself, more than anyone.
That night, I curled up a little further away from her bed. I could still see her eyes, set on me. The look on her face that said watch me carve you whole.
I thought of Veronica and her friend on the bus. They don’t want anyone to have family. I wondered if it was true, if there was something wrong with me, something in me that wanted my mother gone, if this was why I couldn’t love my mother well. Why I sat awake at night thinking, she is going to kill me, she is going to kill me, she is going to kill me.
The night she died, my first thought—my first full-sentence thought—was I’ve proven them right.
The state provided my mother with health insurance, recommended a doctor with a bright office in a high rise containing more elevators than my mother had teeth. I took her there, over and over again.
At first they were kind. The receptionists smiled at my mother, shook their heads good-naturedly when she took handfuls of fruit-flavored lollipops from the bowl on their desk, laughed when she bit the candies, hard, instead of suckling. The nurses checked her reflexes, her eyes and ears, her blood pressure. I watched them stare into the back of her throat and wanted to ask if it was an abyss, if my mother was like a bag of holding from a fairy tale, or if they could see the food piling inside her, like our overfull grocery cart. I bit my tongue.
Maybe a parasite? the doctor said, the first time he examined her. If she’s eating as much as you say … and she’s still this thin … we should have her tested. I clutched at it like a get-out-of-jail-free card: a parasite. But later that week his office called, and the receptionist’s bright voice retained its unnaturally high-pitch. Great news! she said. No parasite. Everything looks great, honestly, although her weight’s a little lower than we’d like. The doctor says to just make sure she’s eating enough, but overall, no worries.
I wanted to laugh, to ask what they thought would be enough. I thought of my mother sucking the marrow from bones. The same day we’d gone to the doctor, she’d knocked me over and pushed me into the open oven door, trying to grab raw meat loaf from my hands.
The burn on my leg still blared red as a traffic signal when the office-worker hung up. Just a healthy appetite still echoed in my ear.
I took her back, again and again. My hair was thinning, brittle. Standing made me dizzy, and when I sat, my bones jabbed at my skin. I couldn’t keep doing this, I couldn’t take it, there had to be a reason, something to explain it, something we could fix.
You’re stressing yourself out, M, the doctor said. You have to take care of yourself. It’s like they say—you can’t pour from an empty cup. I nodded. The seasick feeling in my head made me close my eyes. I opened them again, too quickly. My mother was sucking on the soggy paper stems that had held her lollipops.
The last time we went, I broke down completely. I was crying without making tears; my chest heaved, my whole body shook. I kept repeating myself, begging the words to land.
There’s something wrong with her. I swear. There’s something wrong with her, really.
It only made the doctor cock his head at me, furrow his brow. That’s a terrible thing to say, isn’t it? About your own mother?
I took my mother’s outstretched hand and left. I already knew we weren’t going back.
I walked her to the elevator, her nails digging into my palm. In her other hand, she held an empty bottle of Mother’s Milk. She kept sucking at the straw like more milk might appear. Slurping, slurping, slurping. Swallowing nothing but air.
The sight of my mother eating should have made me sick, the way juices poured down her pointed cheekbones, the way her mouth vacuumed up the plate. The days subsisting on nothing should have settled into routine. I waited to stop expecting food. Already, I did not expect warm water or furniture or someone to say my name in love. So I waited. Someday I would be used to going without.
Instead, food was all I could think about. I watched my mother eating and my mouth watered. I closed my eyes against a constant headache, counting the seconds, the minutes, the hours until I could sneak a scoop of peanut butter, a handful of berries. Even my tripled stipend couldn’t cover her appetite. We survived on charity donations and a circuit of food pantries we entered as a pair of identical skeletons, one well-fed, one starved.
Each time, the daughters in charge clucked their tongues at us. It’s one thing if you want to be thin, one awful woman told me, shoving formula into my hands, but she’s your mother. You have to do better.
I didn’t know how to do better. Twice that year, I fainted outright. More often, I sat, my face between my knees, trying to stop my head from swimming. My mother wanted a snack, and I asked if she could get it herself, could she get it herself, please, could she, I wasn’t feeling … My mother screamed like I had stuffed her in the broiler. I made the snack.
Once, at the state store, the girl with the green hair shook her head at me, grinning. Does she really eat all that? she asked, her arm pulling at my elbow, her voice a whisper in my ear.
That’s not even the half of it, I said, and the green-haired girl gave a low whistle through her teeth. I wanted to stand there, let my mother wander, unsupervised, through the automatic doors. I wanted to tell the green-haired girl everything, to look at her until I knew her eye color down to the flecks. I wanted to say, it doesn’t make sense, right? It’s more food that anyone could eat.
Anyone, it seemed, except my mother. My mother was the mouse you give a cookie. She needed a glass of milk, a straw, a napkin. No, my mother made the mouse look reasonable. Only one glass? My mother had a black-hole hunger. She consumed everything and nothing satisfied.
Nothing satisfied me either. So, sometimes, I imagined her dead. I imagined her dead, and, in a sense, I killed her.
She isn’t well, I told the nurse’s line, the week before it happened.
The nurse sighed. We’ve been over this, M, they said. Haven’t we been over this?
No, I know, I said, balancing myself against the counter. I know.
I had given up trying to explain it. I had given up hoping it would click for someone, even as much as it had for the girl with the green hair, the day she passed along the protein bars. I hid food habitually, the same way I showered, brushed teeth, slept. I didn’t mention the headaches or the hollowness, didn’t say she is going to kill me, even when I thought it. When she knocked me over, levelling me to reach her dinner faster, I just picked myself up slowly and kept moving. Just a few weeks’ before, she’d reached into the sink, grabbing for crumbs the dish soap had unstuck from her plate. When I’d tried to stop her, she’d pushed my hand into the garbage disposal. At the emergency room, I’d said it was an accident. At the emergency room, they’d bandaged my mangled hand and asked if my mother had eaten. She looks so thin, they’d said. But I was learning. I tutted with them and let them hand her crackers, while I swayed.
It’s different this time, I tried to tell the nurse. I really think it’s different. She’s sleeping so much. Yesterday, she nearly slept through lunch.
The nurse laughed. Sounds like a growth spurt, she said.
Maybe, I said. But she seems nauseous or like … like she has a stomachache.
Is she eating normally? The nurse asked.
I bit back a laugh.
Is she eating? the nurse repeated.
Of course she’s eating, I said, bitterly.
She asked a few more questions. About water, vomit, urine.
There’s something really wrong, I said again. My voice shook like my hands.
I could hear the nurse’s headshake over the phone. I was the orphaned daughter, the boy who cried wolf. If it makes you feel better, you can bring her in. But we’re backed up from the holiday; it’s going to be a couple weeks.
I rubbed my face with my hands.
Please, I said. Because I couldn’t say we are going to die.
In the meantime, the nurse was saying, you need to calm down. You’re stressing yourself out, M.
Maroon, marina, mermaid. My head swam.
You’re stressing yourself out, she repeated. And that’s not good for your mother.
I made it another week. When I started to worry, I told myself to calm down, and when I wanted to call back, I told myself to wait, and when I wanted to take her to the emergency room, it snowed six feet, and I told myself that was a sign. The buses weren’t running. The cold would not be good for my mother. I gave her a pain reliever and sat up while she slept.
Twice before the end of things, she woke up. Both times she crawled to the kitchen. She had taken to crawling, and the effect was eerie, like an insect dragging the dead weight of its prey. I told her she could stay in bed and I could get her a snack, but she didn’t trust me. While I painted crackers with peanut butter, she helped herself to nuts, to apples, to milk. There were at least ten bottles of Mother’s Milk stuffed into the fridge; the charity ladies had dropped off more earlier, just before the storm. I imagined them psychic, some sort of superheroes. I tried to forget the woman from the food pantry, her finger pulsing in front of my eyes.
In the night’s deepest darkness, when my mother slept so still she seemed to have quit dreaming, I pulled myself to my knees. I wondered if crawling was quieter, decided to try it, crept to the kitchen like a crab. I hadn’t replenished my secret stores beneath the garbage bag and in the neighbor’s flowerpot. There was nothing my mother wouldn’t miss, but I had to eat something. It’ll help me stay awake to watch her, I reasoned. To make sure she’s okay.
I pulled myself to my feet. I grabbed one of the bottles of Mother’s Milk from a low shelf, shook it hard, punctured the paper seal with the point of the straw.
And then I was thrown back, my head snapping against the countertop, the floor sliding from under me. I felt the milk dribble onto my knee. And my mother was on me, pinning me down, licking the drops from my leg, slurping from the bottle I’d dared to open. I tried to sit up, and everything went dark. A warmth came over me. I thought, I’m dreaming. When I opened my eyes, my mother was holding bottle upon bottle of Mother’s Milk in her arms, slurping from more straws than I could count. I couldn’t make sense of it. I closed my eyes again, only for a moment, I thought, or maybe I passed out again, I’m not sure. I’m not sure, but my mother was on the floor. My mother was on the floor surrounded by spilled milk, and her tongue was flopping in her teeth like a caught fish, and I was shaking her, putting the straws to her lips. Drink, drink, drink.
My mother, my mother, my mother. My mother wants milk, wants breath, wants blood. My mother wants.
Then my mother wanted nothing. That’s how I knew she was dead.
For a while, we sat together. My mother’s still body, my still-breathing one. The tiredness and the seasickness built inside me. So did the hunger.
I shouldn’t have been hungry, but I was. I was still hungry, and the sight of the kitchen made me ill. The food here was my mother’s food. She’d made that clear her whole short life, and the thought of eating it now made my head reel. I left everything as it was, like if I broke the spell she’d wake up. Like she might eat if only I left her food.
I slid a pillow under my mother’s head. I stuffed my feet into a pair of ill-fitting snow boots someone had given me for her. And then I walked until my feet blistered. And kept walking.
I walked all the way to the state store, which wasn’t open yet. I sat on a curb across the parking lot and watched the doors. Do I look like a murderer? I wondered. If someone sees me, will they call the cops?
My head kept jerking back; I kept nodding off and startling awake. I shouldn’t have been able to sleep. But I was, sitting on a curb in the state store parking lot, the back of my head still throbbing. Reciting my mother is not alive, my mother is not alive, my mother is not alive. It hadn’t sunken in. It needed to sink in. I thought of the bottles of Mother’s Milk still in the fridge, imagined her sitting up, laughing at me, drinking them.
The store opened. I waited for others to go in, an old woman bent over her cart, a daughter in exercise clothes. I followed slowly, walked the aisles slowly, slowly tried to imagine eating all this food.
I filled my cart with my mother’s favorites. Homage or blasphemy?
In the dairy section, I turned a corner and stopped short. The green-haired girl was stacking juice boxes, but I barely saw her. I saw past her: the vacant refrigerator lining the far wall, brightly-lit and empty. I blinked, touched the tender spot on my head, looked again. Nothing.
Excuse me, I said to the green-haired girl.
Oh, hey, she said. No mom today?
My jaw dropped open.
Probably makes it easier to shop, she laughed. My hands started to shake. The girl’s face fell. Sorry, she said. I didn’t mean … Did you need something?
The milk, I said. I don’t see any milk.
The milk? she asked. Right there. She pointed down the row to gallons of skim, 2%, whole.
No, I said. I mean … the Mother’s Milk. The formula? It’s usually right here.
The green-haired girl looked over her shoulder. My head swam. I thought, my mother drank all the milk in the world; my mother drank us dry. Except she couldn’t have. Because my mother was dead.
Oh, the girl was saying. They made us pull that. Some recall. I don’t know all the details, but it’s, like, contaminated? I think some people died or something.
My knees shook.
Hopefully we’ll get a new shipment in. But yeah. If you have any left, I wouldn’t give it to your mom …
I kept staring at the empty fridge, the light flickering on vacant shelves.
You okay? the girl asked, and I nodded. Because I always nodded, always. I was fine, I had to be fine, I was responsible. Was I responsible? How could I be responsible for her, if she was dead? She was never going to want anything again. She was never going to slurp another drink. I was sweating, I was shivering, I could see my mother knocking into me for the bottle, the same way she had a thousand times before. It made me unsteady. Contaminated. The milk had been contaminated. My mother was dead, and I was falling asleep in her snow boots. My mother was dead, and I was alive, so in a sense, she’d saved me.
That, I guess, was when I hit the floor.
After the EMTs deemed me malnourished and concussed … after the green-haired girl fed me two butterscotch candies and put her number into my phone … after the emergency room doctor put his hand on my shoulder … after I dropped the apartment key and my neighbor picked it up … after the police, after the autopsy … after I learned the name of the bacteria like it was my own … after the list of symptoms included both fatigue and diminished appetite … after I laughed until I cried … after the neighbor taught me the difference between plot and headstone … after accidental death, toxicity, liability … after the lawyer settled with the state … after the letters marked class-action law suit … after you aren’t responsible … after you did everything you could … I took the bus back to the state store.
You don’t have to shop there anymore, the neighbor said, when she saw me bringing in the bags. You’re going to have plenty when this all shakes out. You’re going to have plenty. M?
Mountain, meadow, morning.
I shrugged. I craved the familiarity of the state store, the same products in the same order in the same aisles. I took my bags inside.
I’d bought a handful of things: the foods that were slowly becoming my staples, two new candles, some conversation hearts from a Valentine’s display. I put the groceries in the fridge, and took the rest to the bedroom. I lit the candles, one on each side of the bed. I thought of my mother and my daughter. I let the candles burn.
My phone buzzed. I had long since learned the green-haired girl’s name, but in my phone she still came up Green Grocer. She’d gotten her own apartment, she said. Some friends were coming Saturday to celebrate, bringing cheese and crackers and fruits, and would I like to join? She didn’t have furniture yet, but we could eat on the floor, pretend it was summer, call it a picnic.
I stared at the message, somewhere between smile and ache.
I have a picnic basket, I texted back. The green-haired girl sent a gif of Yogi Bear and named a time.
I sat down on the bed. Imagined filling the basket with only items that started with M. Mango, melon, macaroons.
I made dinner. I placed a small plate in front of each lit candle, like an offering. Slowly, I ate my portion, savoring each bite. When I finished, I poured the oversized box of conversation hearts into my hand, sorted them by saying, the way fairy tale characters sort lentils from ash. All the purple ones said Be Mine. I bit them in half slowly, chewing every Be.
Then I sat for a long time, just breathing. Just staring at my palm, savoring how it cradled this small collection. This handful of broken hearts echoing, over and over, mine … mine … mine.