I always left something. Clumps of wet hair from my hairbrush after I had taken my last shower at Michael's apartment, a half stick of spearmint gum that I sneaked underneath Jason's pillow before he threw my shirts out of his window and more recently, large rings of aqua gel toothpaste on every plate in Ed's cabinet. I tried to imagine when he woke in the morning, eyes crusted with sleep, pulling a bowl from the cabinet, feet shuffling to the table, shaking flakes from a cereal box, pouring post-dated milk and mixing Crest around with the sugar-coated raisins. A certain freshness to start the day. "Morning hon!" I would have announced in my best game show hostess voice.
I was also a collector. When Michael unfurled his social card from his coat pocket, tightly held together with his index and forefinger and offered it to me, I grabbed it and shoved it deep into my purse, burying it with the rest. The age of the business card is antiquated. Small cards in blush or sage displaying a small glamour shot, and a series of phone numbers and alternate email addresses now replace it. While Jacob drooled on his pillows and Egyptian sheets, I tip toed to the kitchen and gathered a handful of Puppy Chow. I opened the cabinet above the microwave to retrieve a plastic storage bag and my eyes widened in glee as the magenta colored giblets slid into the plastic. Sealed, I shoved the plastic bag in my briefcase. I would open the bag and take sharp sniffs of the dog food for days. Chadwick, who arranged his socks by hue, locked himself in his room for a week wondering how his collection of sky-blue trouser socks had suddenly disappeared. He kept mumbling to himself, "But I've arranged them just so!" Tears dampening his blue oxford shirt, his teeth made tiny indents in his knuckles. The morning I left his apartment, I had flicked on the local news. An anchor in a tomato red blazer, pressed her hand to her chest, fingering a gold button. "The Syosset community mourns the loss of Ellen Sullivan, a well respected charitable fixture who just last year raised over a hundred thousand dollars in donations for Bailey House, an AIDS charity based in Manhattan. Ellen lost her battle with breast cancer early this morning at age 62. A wake will be held tonight…" I muted the television and stared in disbelief as a picture of her daughter Susan Sullivan, Manhattan district attorney, flashed on the screen. I turned the television off, leaped off the coach and left a sobbing Chadwick. His choked cries echoed throughout the apartment.
* * *
It had started when I was ten; picking up mountains of tissues spilling out of my mother's outstretched hand dangling over the arm of the couch. Hundreds of double ply lotioned tissues stuck together with her phlegm. Some had dried and hardened with blood, others still moist from saliva. I leaned down, bony knees wobbling on the floor and stuffed them into black plastic bags. My mother never bought clear garbage bags - she said that she didn't want anyone to ever see. I had trouble believing her. Sometimes I would have to shake the tissues off my fingers. I soon became numb to the feeling of disgust. At first I would pile the bags in the hall closet, afraid they might snag on a nail when dragged across the hallway or tear from large pieces of glass hidden between tall blades of grass on our lawn from when she came home and smashed beer bottles onto the grass. I waited up for her almost every night. I waited for her to come home from her "work". I would hear the railroad pull into the platform three blocks from our house, the ground quaking from the train's arrival; tires rolled down the track. Moments later, she would wind our corner and wave. She would stumble up the street, her heels lodged into the pavement's cracks and crevices. She was so drunk she couldn't walk straight. She stood at the foot of the lawn and smiled; her mouth opened wide. Then her arms stretched to a point where I felt they would snap and break from her body. She attempted to walk and then crawl towards me; her knees bloody from the broken glass, her shins brown with dirt and bits of weeds that got caught in her stockings. "Claire! My little girl all grown up, waiting for her mommy!" She would shout through smeared lips, lip liner making red crescents on her cheeks; mouth gaping. I would have nightmares of dyed blonde circus clowns screaming at the foot of my bed for months. Then, I dumped the bags on the curb. I had forgotten about shame.
I despised whenever our neighbor Ellen Sullivan teetered over to my house. Her hands massaged the doorknob. "Is anyone home?" she called out one day, her voice like hundreds of glasses shattering. I bolted from my mother's room, closing the door behind me and crept to the door across the hall and slid under my bed. I squeezed my body next to candy wrappers, board games and dirty pink socks under my bed. She softly walked up my stairs calling, "Diana?" "Claire?" Her heels made indents in the carpet, marking her territory. My door opened, the hinges moaned and squealed - my house never did quite take to Ellen Sullivan. I saw her patent leather heels making momentary prints on my blue carpet, kicking aside stuffed animals. I heard her pick up pieces of paper and then put them down. She then crouched down, her skirt riding up her thighs, white cotton panties peeking out. "Claire, come out for under there!" she insisted. She reached under the metal frame and grabbed my hands. Ellen pulled me out and up off the floor. She gasped. "Look at this hair! Humph, we must do something about this!" she said, fingers bruising the inside of my wrist. I struggled to break away from her, to yank myself away, but she was too strong. Ellen dragged me past my mother's door and for a moment I opened my mouth to call out to her for help. Then I closed it. My mother did not appear to hear anything; she barely shifted within the white cotton sheets. She lay faced down, her hair covering her face while she slept. Her purse lay open on the floor. The gold clasp incandescent in the morning light. The purse's contents: ripped condom wrappers, a cluster of needles and small vials scatterd the carpet by her bed. Once I grabbed white paint from the garage and painted around her body creating an outline, like on the television shows. The brush licking lint off the blanket, paint smeared around her. When she finally stomped down the stairs, there were white marks all over her body. Streaks of the paint had dried on her arms. Chunks of hair stuck together from the paint brushed her shoulders as she walked into the kitchen. In her flowing white nightgown, she looked like an angel.
Ellen Sullivan shook a bottle of shampoo and pink goo spit out on my head. Her nails raked my scalp and all she kept saying was, "We're going to make you nice and clean!" I tried to wiggle free but could not. I tried to kick her while my head was under the sink but her body stood erect and strong up against mine. I could hardly move. After that day, I dead bolted the doors.
From then on, I always washed my hair, twisting the wet strands into braids. I ironed my uniform for school. Sometimes my fingers would burn on the iron it was so hot. I did not want another mother.
When I was eleven, I hid my mother's make-up. Tubes of lipstick, lip gloss, lip liner in shades of pink and bright red - creamy, matte, glossy were stuffed in cookie jars. Frosty blue and mint green eyeshadows caked and slid in small chunks into the milk carton. She never noticed that her corn flakes floated in light green milk. She probably thought the chunks were raisins. I ate toast. With butter knives I dug at her blush - "Animal Rose" and smiled when pellets of pink floated in the toilet. My mother felt around her dresser, hands patting the wood as if she were blind, searching for her paint. Confused, she overturned drawers in the kitchen; knives stabbing her feet lodged in heels too high muttering "Lipliner". When she left, face red and sore from scrubbing it hard with Brillo, lips bruised from her tugging, I collected each piece of silverware off the floor and scrubbed each individual piece clean. I polished them with hand towels until I could see my blurred reflection from the fluorescent lights in the kitchen.
"She could make a bedspring sing a song of mercy," Telly hummed as I walked by his car towards the school entrance during lunch in tenth grade. His breath hot on my face stunk of meatloaf. "How is your mom Claire?" Bonnie Taylor asked, her voice echoing in the parking lot as she leaned against Telly's Pontiac. Her fingers stroked strands of ironed straight copper hair. She picked at split ends. I ignored them, thrusting my books into my chest I could hardly breathe. I walked passed Ellen Sullivan's daughter, Susan and pushed open the door into the school. My eyes grew comfortable with the dimness of the hallway. I opened my locker and pieces of paper neatly folded in four descended to the floor. I never opened them, was never curious about the contents. I collected them and put them neatly in a small box with a piece of bond paper I had neatly taped to the front, precisely cut to the shape of a rectangle, the words "High School" typewritten on the paper in boldface. I covered the box with a sweater and gently shut the locker. I reopened it and pressed on the teen heartthrob pin-ups on the locker, ensuring the glossy paper stuck to the locker. Sometimes, I tore off more scotch tape, curled it, then placed it under the posters so they would never peel off; they would never fall. I swiped the tape from my math teacher's desk when she had turned to the board; chalk scraping the black board, forming equations, answers. I told you I was a collector.
That evening, a fist banging on the door woke me from my sleep. I was drenched in sweat, my mother's head rolled off my lap, her body to the floor. Every once in a while, her body would convulse from a fit of coughing and then ease and melt to the floor. She was out cold. My head slowly peered up, eyes squinting through the blinds; adjusting to the small sliver of light that entered. Ellen Sullivan stood erect in front of my door, hand perfectly rolled into a fist, pounding at my door. Her other hand held a plate of something wrapped in tin foil. "Christ," I muttered and slouched down into the couch, my mother turned on her side; her breath in short rasps. I imagined this was what a corpse looked like. A corpse in vinyl and lip liner. I heard Mrs. Sullivan sigh and rest the plate in front of the door. When I left for school the next day, I slid the plate with my foot to the side of my door. Ants covered the foil. I could not stop smiling.
Susan Sullivan unnerved me. Once I caught her peering at me through her window. Near dawn, I woke up from the sound of my mother's heavy breathing -- I felt I could hear water boiling in her lungs, gurgling in her throat. I picked her up from the back, her feet dragging on the floor. Moaning and panting, balls of sweat slithering down my back; I carried her past the kitchen to the stairs. That was when I caught Susan staring at me through her window. Her face was expressionless when our eyes met. No hint of embarrassment. She didn't duck her head so as to pretend she had not been seen. She didn't turn away as if she had innocently wandered passed her window at 4 A.M. I stood there in the darkness hoisting my mother up as her weight slid down my arm, staring at Susan. After a few minutes, she turned away and I saw white socks skipping up her stairway. Soon my mother grew so weightless; I easily carried her to bed.
On the way to school, Susan Sullivan walked beside me, practically jogged to keep up with my stride. "Are you, um, okay?" Susan asked, as we walked to school together. I looked at her from the corner of my left eye. Her eyes concentrated on the pavement as she walked. Her hips shifted in her green and white pleated skirt, breasts shamelessly protruding from her v-neck crème sweater. The loud "V" patch ironed on was peeling from the cheaply knit cotton. Her pom-poms shook as she walked; it reminded me of crickets and bugs crunching under my mother's heels when she was strong enough to wear them.
"Like you give a shit," I said and walked faster, legs starting to chafe.
"Well my mom wanted me to ask you." she replied, shoulders stiffened.
"Figures." I turned sideways and said, "By the way, your V is coming off." We both continued in silence; Susan's hand clutching the V patch against her sweater. When we arrived at school, Susan had started to walk faster, her body parted sharply from mine. "And tell your mom to stop bringing over biscuits, we have food, thanks!" I shouted. I never did see Susan's expression. I didn't even know if she had heard. I just wanted her mother to stop knocking.
My mother died. It was nothing glamorous - she just stopped breathing. When I passed her room, it was silent. She looked no different than she normally did, except that her chest stopped rising and falling, the wheezing ceased. I imagined that if I moved my hand over her face, her eyes would open, over her chest, her back would arch up, over her legs and they would shake, over her toes, they would twinkle. I let my hand linger there in the air and the only sound was of my own breath, the hum of the refrigerator downstairs. I tried to force myself to cry. I coughed, hard. I widened my eyes. I tried to stop blinking. I kept looking at my mother. But I just felt empty and cold and could not understand that. I stared down at my uniform and it felt like tin foil. Then the knocking. The knocking. Just like the ants but hard, harder. I walked down the steps and opened the door.
"Hi dear," Mrs. Sullivan said. "Is everything okay? I noticed you didn't leave your house for school this morning," she continued.
"I'm fine." I replied, quickly closing the door. A small black pump blocked the door.
"Where is your mother, dear?" She smiled, gums glaring. My shoulders began to shiver and cave in. I collapsed into Ellen, lips trembling. My mouth opened wide, eyes quickly filled, flowed then reddened, saliva spilling over my chin. I could not control the spasms. I could not collect myself. Then she embraced me. Her body stood back a few inches from mine and she patted my shoulders, adjusted my shirt. As I grabbed her arms to draw her closer, she abruptly pulled back. She unearthed a Kleenex from her handbag that rested on the crook of her elbow and leaned into my face, dappling my tears with the soft tissue. I then lead her upstairs into my mother's room. Her mouth opened so wide, I could see the severe lines in her cheeks. She stumbled back and gripped the railing to balance her. She shoved me from the doorway and closed the door behind her, somewhat soothed by its click shut. "I should call someone," she said. "The police, no, an ambulance, yes, an ambulance," she muttered to herself, forcing me down the stairs. In the hallway, she lifted the phone receiver and stared at it for a good minute. She dialed 911. While she nervously coiled the phone cord around her fingers, I quickly dipped my head and wiped my nose with the bottom of her shirt. After she gave the police my address, she covered the receiver and asked, "Is there anyone that can take you? Any family?" I slowly shook my head no, head bowed to the floor.
Within ten minutes, an ambulance crept around my corner and discretely parked in my garage. A gentleman dressed in white clutching a clipboard climbed out from the driver's seat and walked towards Ellen. She pointed to my mother's window on the second floor. Two EMS workers ran carrying a stretcher through my front door. The driver then asked me if I had any family to stay with. "Perhaps a grandparent in town nearby, or an aunt in the city?" he offered. I looked away from my mother's window and stared at this man's face; his clean-shaven skin, his fine thin lips and his thick straight hair gelled back behind his ears. "No one," I said, "There's no one." I longed to hug him, to hug anyone. I wanted to bury my face in someone's coat; in someone's shirt so I would miss the two EMS workers cart her away. I would escape seeing even just a slight wisp of her hair, a bony finger peeking out from under the sheet. I would have snapped my head up as soon as the two back doors of the ambulance slammed shut. I would only see the white van curve around the corner, leaving a cloud of exhaust. "No one," I said again. The driver's face fell and his eyes grew heavy with pity. He walked towards Ellen and they spoke in hushed tones. Ellen kept nodding, her eyes every so often darting back to me. Her purse waved like a pendulum from her elbow. The EMS crew took hurried, large steps towards the van. I stood on my lawn watching them slide the stretcher and my mother neatly zippered up in a black bag. Ellen stepped towards me and settled her hand on my shoulder. "Come with me," she said, her hand now trailing down to the small of my back.
Ellen walked me over to her home, her arm guiding my back through the front door and into the living room. A weird feeling came over me and as I looked around I realized that their home was PERFECT. Not a spec of dust illuminated off the cherry coffee table, magazines were perfectly aligned and grouped by subject. Freshly cut flowers were arranged in glass vases on mahogany stands at all four corners of the room. Pictures of Ellen, Susan and their father in silver monogrammed frames decorated the fireplace. I imagined a dog laying on a chenille throw neatly placed in front of the fireplace, wood cackling under flames as the family all sat around drinking tea, offering anecdotes. But Ellen Sullivan would never have a dog, wet paws with leaves sticking making prints on the cashmere rug, drool that could collect on the coffee table; there was no room for another frame.
When Susan came home and dropped her book bag on the floor, Ellen frowned. Her grip on my shoulder tightened as we sat silent on the leather couch. I winced when she told Susan that I would be staying for a while. I did not understand why Susan had rushed up the stairs; the door slamming caused one of the frames to fall to the floor. Ellen walked over, picked up the frame, which remained intact, dusted it with her shirt and placed it back on the mantel.
I ran up the stairs to Susan's room. I felt dizzy seeing all of her posters on the wall - just slapped on with fun tack, some were tilted, some straight, some peeling off the walls. I had the urge to tear them all down and fix them. I peered over at my bags that Ellen had placed in the corner of the room, next to Susan's closet and I wanted to run over and snatch my Strawberry Shortcake doll. I had it since I was young and it lay there dirty, a puff of cotton dangled from its arm socket. It didn't deserve to be here. Susan had yelled at me and I felt the sting of her words linger in me even after I had closed the door and rushed downstairs. But I felt that I could finally breathe. By Susan yelling at me, I knew that I was not alone in my suffering - about our town, about our mothers.
* * *
"Transfer at Syosset for the Huntington line," a mechanical voice boomed over the loudspeaker. The train trembled with descending speed as it arrived into Syosset. An agonizing screech bellowed throughout the train as the brakes slammed the rails. I wove through the rush hour crowd - men clutching urine colored beer in plastic containers, musing over the falling stock market - to the exit door. When the doors opened, a cold rush of air startled me. I stepped onto the platform; a tray of corn bread biscuits nestled under my arm and clipped through the crowd. I head towards the end of the platform. There was a mass of white taxicabs.
"TAXI! TAXI!" the cab drivers called out. I strode passed them and onto the road. When I walked by my old house, I saw a little girl crawl down the lawn, her palms patting the flowerbed. I stood at the curb as the mother adorning a blue floral smock collected the toddler off the lawn. The mother pressed the little girl against her breast and laid baby kisses on its forehead. I scowled. I stared down the road ahead; the collection of houses blended a white perfection. Through the white, I thought I saw my mother in a bright gold sundress, her hair feathered about her face in waves like an accordion. I walked down a few houses, cautiously, and heard a soft hum echo in the calm of the street. Diana sat crouched, her arms stretched out before her, pulling weeds from a lawn. She swatted mosquitoes with her gloved right hand and yanked and pulled from the ground and dumped the weeds into a moss-green bucket. She worked with precision, making swift and controlled movements of her body; refined muscles protruded from her arms. Her body which had always looked pale and drained of color, her skin now cast a warm brilliant glow. She could not hear or see me as I leaned down and touched her.
She yanked harder at the weeds. I turned and looked down the block towards our home and the Sullivans and the sky grew dark. Wind stirred the leaves onto the asphalt of the street. Gold, crimson leaves curled they were so dry. A black town car pulled up to the curb in front of Ellen Sullivan's home. The sleek shine of the hood, the doors and the windows--the silver of the wheels, and the handles looked too clean and too new against the clutter of leaves and debris in the driveways, the compact vehicles parked on the street and the country Thanksgiving decorations that covered the porches and windows of every home. The car door opened wide and hung open as a tall woman stepped onto the sidewalk in black high heels. It was Susan. Her tailored suit, black felt cap and the heavy studded earrings that gleamed in the evening light were all the makings of a glossy magazine model. When I turned back to where my mother had knelt, the street was dark. A little boy tossed his bike on the lawn and stared at me. His round brown eyes were covered in fear and I noticed I was standing in front of his house, on his lawn.
"You lost lady?" he asked, shuffling his feet from side to side.
"No, no. I'm sorry. I just thought--I thought this was where I used to live."
"We've lived here, like, forever," the boy regarded me with suspicion.
"I guess not then," I said. It was too late. He had already skittered up his porch steps and the clang of the screen door was his response.
As I walked towards the Sullivan's house, I gripped my coat with both hands, tight. My hair kept whipping in front of my face, getting caught in my eyes. I remembered how hot it was the day my mother had died. The peeling of my legs off the cushions of the leather sofa, Susan's roar of anger, Ellen's grip on my shoulder. I longed to enter the house now, the first time where I would not be the one to pity.