In the airport babies were crying. Babies all through the building were howling themselves into stupors. One baby must have started it and the others were moved to join in. I pulled my suitcase past the gates, where people sat reading newspapers, eating sandwiches off their laps, or jiggling babies. I tried to get a look inside a baby’s mouth as he howled over his mother’s shoulder, but he closed it abruptly and looked at me with meanness.
I could see my gate ahead at the end of a long corridor lined with crying babies. Grief ! Sorrow! In the Delta wing of Logan International. I knew how they felt. I clenched my mouth to keep from joining them in plangent, uproarious grieving. People might be surprised to hear a grown woman like me, so mature, so composed, howling like a baby. But they haven’t met my mother. And they don’t have to fly to California with her.
She was waiting at the gate, gorgeous and in a state of high excitement. I saw her from far away, a tiny bright mom at the end of the hallway, standing up so she could ensnare more passersby in conversation, flanked by a red leather carry-on bag and a red calfskin purse, wearing a saffron sweater, so that her overall effect was of a magnificent hibiscus blooming among indestructible leather petals. When she saw me, she dropped her bags so she could wave her arms freely.
“Yoo hoo!” she yelled.
Two sad babies stopped crying to watch her. Marvelous calling blossom!
“Jillian, honey!” she yelled. “Over here!”
“I see you,” I said, already mortified.
“Thank god you’re here,” she said, enfolding me in a redolent hug. “Brian is not.”
We were on our way to visit our sick grandfather. This was hard on us all, because we weren’t close to him. It would be only the third time Brian and I had met him.
She said, “If he misses the plane, I’ll smack him, I mean it.”
Brian still hadn’t shown when we began to board. My mother flew down the retractable hallway into the plane, periodically glancing over her shoulder and jerking her head at me: Let’s go! I thought: This mother tomato and her baby are out for a walk. The baby tomato is a real slowpoke, stopping to look at bugs and flowers. The mother tomato looks over her shoulder and sees her slowpoke baby lagging behind. She runs back, stomps on the baby tomato, and shouts, “Catch up!”
“I know you want the window seat,” my mother said in the plane.
“No,” I said. “I don’t care. You can have it.”
“In you go,” she said.
I squeezed in and buckled my seatbelt. My mother crowded in beside me. She tilted her head to get a good look at me. Her eyelids had a creamy, oily sheen. Her mascara had left tiny feathery imprints on her upper lids, which gave the impression of constant wild blinking. “I thought you were getting your hair cut,” she said.
“I did,” I told her.
“Jillian, love,” she said. “Your hair is the first thing many people notice about you. You’re lucky because you’ve inherited good, thick hair from me. Why not style it to show it off? To create a memorable first impression? This is not a criticism, my love. I’m praising you. I’m praising your hair, you have beautiful hair, but right now it looks messy and tangled.”
I looked out my window to the gray afternoon. Men in orange jackets moved over the runway, carting luggage. They looked tiny and melancholy. One of them had the folded posture of someone caught in the rain. He hoisted a black duffel bag onto a cart and then raised his head. His arms hung at his sides. Was he looking at me? He had a big, sad chin. He wanted to fly away in my place. He lifted his arm dreamily and pointed. Was he pointing at me? His finger was sad and fat.
If Brian didn’t show up then I would be alone with my mother for four days. Had this ever happened? When I was nine I fantasized about this very thing. I dreamed that our car would break down on a highway studded inexplicably with cactuses, that my mother and I would hitch a ride with a bearded moonshiner who’d point his rusty rifle at us when we discovered his stash of rainbow-colored whiskey, that we would run hand in hand down a golden road, finding solace finally in a tiny shack with bunk beds.
When I was young, being with my mother was intoxicating. She smelled tropical. She looked like Katherine Hepburn. Her high forehead gave the impression of vast American spaces: prairies, parking lots! She wore wraparound silk blouses and high heels. Being beautiful and popular was important to her, and I responded to her the way I responded to popular girls at school: with desperate longing. I so wanted entry to the innermost circle of her affection. I used to try to imagine the months I’d spent growing inside her. I thought about them with feverish secrecy, dreaming up a world of red hills and waving seaweed when I was tiny and unformed and breathing underwater like a fish.
“I’m calling him,” I said.
“He won’t answer,” she said.
I didn’t want to be alone with her. I didn’t want her fashion advice. I wanted to slip through the airplane window, through some “ancient portal dimly starred,” into another world. It would be a world like the lab I worked in, with glass aquariums and scaled bodies undulating through water. Data entry as meditation. Flakes of food drifting like snow. If Brian didn’t show up I would never forgive him.
Brian was two years older than me, but he acted twenty-one. He loved TV, cheeseburgers, and beer. He loved his friends with doggish loyalty. He loved things that made him sweat: jogging, dancing, and basketball. He loved us, his family, with what struck me as a canned or televised love, as if all our struggles were nothing more than laugh-track squabbling, hilarious high jinx. It seems to me there must have been a certain year, a certain moment, when I became older than Bri. When he drank from the drink-me vial, and I ate the eat-me cake, and a feverish shrinking and growing went on, and we were looking at each other through water. Wiggly lines. Pupils expanding, contracting. Brian a monster towering over me. Brian a tiny pet I can hold in my palm. Brian big, Brian small, Brian bouncing off the wall.
“Voicemail again,” I said.
“I’m going to ask them to wait,” my mother said, pressing the flight-attendant call button.
“You aren’t serious,” I said. “They’re not going to wait! Please don’t do this, Mother. You’re embarrassing me.”
I was thirty years old! I had a PhD and owned furniture. I was a grown-up, but around my mother I melted into a small pile of child. The elemental stuff of childhood—fear and desire—seemed to bubble up to the surface from deep inside, where it usually lay dormant.
“My son is a bit late,” my mother said when the flight attendant bent over her. He was a man my age, with splendid teeth and hair.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“I want to make sure we don’t take off without him,” she said.
“We’re on a schedule,” the flight attendant said. “We can’t wait for your son.”
“He’s on his way,” my mother said confidently. “He’ll be here in a minute.”
“I don’t know how to say this any other way,” the flight attendant said. “We won’t wait for one man.”
When he walked away my mother watched him go. Then she turned to me. “He’s cute. And he’s not wearing a ring. Now that I’m single, I notice these things. Oh,there’s Brian!”
Brian had stumbled onto the plane, out of breath, with sweaty hair. I watched him come down the aisle, bumping people with his suitcase and apologizing: Ohjeez, y’all right?
“Look at me,” Brian said when he got to our row. “I’m a mess. Can you believe it?”
“Yes,” I said. In fact, he did not look right, standing there in the aisle. He seemed undecided. He was pale and damp-looking, like a sick or newborn bird.
“What happened to you?” my mother said.
“It’s not like one thing,” he said. “It’s just everything.”
“Well, put your bag up and sit down,” my mother said.
She pressed the call button. When the flight attendant leaned over, she said, “My son is here now. So I’m all set.”
For most of our lives, my mother hadn’t wanted anything to do with the family she left behind in California. Her father had offended her deeply in childhood by being a slob and poor. The house she grew up in was cramped and unclean. Her father’s shirts were stained at the armpits. He shuffled around the house in a miasma of cigarette smoke. We saw all his faults in the cramped handwriting on the birthday cards he sent us. Inside the birthday cards were five-dollar bills as pale and soft as handkerchiefs.
“What’d he do, wash them before he sent them?” my mother said, exasperated.
“Laundered money!” Brian said, and we giggled.
When we studied genealogy at school, I developed a wicked interest in my grandfather. I asked my mother what he was like.
“He was mean,” she said. “The meanest man you ever met. He once tweaked my nose so hard I developed sinus problems, the same sinus problems I have today. On top of that he was just gross. Not a gentleman.” She looked at me critically. Why would I ask about him, the meanest man, the grossest man, the man who tweaked noses? I must have been mean or gross myself. A real loser. I knew about genes, passed down like a virus from men to their granddaughters, and I could suddenly feel his mean, gross genes in me, distinct from my other genes, wiggling through my cells like worms.
“Really, why the sudden interest?” she’d asked.
“Yeah, who cares about him?” Brian shouted.
“That’s right, honey,” she said, enfolding Brian in her arms. Brian looked triumphant, and I sank into despair. This was life with our mother, always trying to tip the see-saw of her favor.
The flight attendant came on the loudspeaker saying, “In the event of a sudden drop in cabin pressure, three oxygen masks will be released from the compartment above you. After you’ve stopped screaming, simply place the mask over your nose and mouth, snapping the rubber band behind your head. Like this.”
“After you’ve stopped screaming?” my mother said, somehow impressed. She wasn’t the kind of woman who loved all babies or all dogs just because they were babies or dogs. But men she liked just for being men. In this way, Brian has always had an unfair advantage over me.
“If you are traveling with a small child,” our flight attendant said, “I suggest a strong drink and an aspirin.”
“What a riot,” she said. “I wonder if he’s gay. I’m getting that sense.”
“Ask Jillian. She’s got the good gay-dar,” Brian said.
“I do not have good gay-dar, you guys. I don’t even like the term gay-dar.”
“You always seem to know,” my mother said. Then she turned to Brian and patted his knee. “Isn’t it amazing how she just knows?”
The plane lumbered down the runway and lifted into the air like a giant, sluggish bird. Boston disappeared beneath us. My mother and Brian turned on their reading lights and my mother produced a crossword puzzle, part of her daily regimen for maintaining intellectual sharpness. We rose into a bank of gray clouds, then dipped down, and I could see below us all the green-gray farms west of the city. I noticed an unusual light down there, a long crack of earth and light glowing from inside.
“Mom, look at that,” I said, and she leaned over. “See the light coming out of the earth? It looks like, like a glimpse of, I don’t even know.”
“Where is it?” she asked. “That little town there?”
“No, kind of behind the town. You can’t see it? It’s this huge glowing crack of light.”
“Maybe it’s a sports arena,” she said. “I may be wrong but I think the lights of a sports arena are so bright you can see them from space.”
“It isn’t a sports arena,” I said, feeling my face prickling. “It’s light spilling out of the earth. It’s like a boulder split open and light is spilling out. How can you not see it?”
She craned her neck to look behind us.
“Look at that town,” she said. “Look how small it is. Isn’t it funny to think we don’t even know the name of that town? We’ve probably never even heard of that town. But it’s as if each light is a person. The soul of a person, and they’re living their lives down there, working and eating and loving and—oh!” She winced. “I just saw one go out. I just watched one of those lights go out. Now I’m spooked. Now I am really spooked.”
“It was probably someone’s porch light,” I said. “And they just went inside to watch the news. It’s nothing to get spooked about.”
She said, “When you get to be my age, you start praying to God not to let your light go out too soon.”
Brian reached up and turned off my mother’s reading light.
“What?” he said. “Too soon?”
He turned it back on.
“I’m just kidding,” he said.
She patted his leg. She was a great patter of legs.
Among other distinctions, my mother claims not to have a birthmark. As children, this fascinated us.
“These are your birthmarks,” we told her, about a constellation of freckles on her neck, Brian and I tiny and swarming over her.
“Those are beauty marks,” she said.
Brian and I both had birthmarks shaped like fish. Mine was slender and secretive, swimming straight up behind my knee. His was on the top of his chest, a fat sunfish, which he showed off by pulling down the neck of his shirt.
“Show them yours,” he would order. And I would roll up my jeans to the knees.
“That’s totally weird,” his friends would say.
“We’re not even Pisces,” I would say.
“Whatever that means,” his friends would say.
As a child I loved Brian passionately. At five, I could coax the love I felt into a hot blaze. He was seven. Seven! Magical age. I wanted to be seven. He was tall. I wanted to be tall. He did not wear glasses. O liberated eyes! Everything made him laugh. I wanted to make him laugh and I wanted to be the one laughing.
His room was a magical cave I could enter when I felt brave. It was full of Brian’s smell, a cross between soap and corn. His toys were complex and dangerous. Transformers! GI Joe! During the day I was rarely welcome, but at night when he was sleepy he became compulsively gentle and loving. He liked to pretend that I was still a baby and tuck me into bed. Instinctively we hid this tenderness from our mother. She liked to be the keeper of tenderness in our home, doling it out like currency. Her tenderness was the most valuable, and when we were old enough, Brian and I became shrewd and ambitious about getting it.
My mother still lives in Newton in the house we grew up in—she kept it after the divorce—though my room has become an office. Bri’s room is a “guest room,” only it looks exactly the way it did when Bri was fifteen and flagged his walls with Patriots pennants and fortified his bookcases with soccer trophies.
“Turn Bri’s room into an office,” I said when she started the renovations.
“Better light in your room,” she said. “South facing.”
“What do you need an office for?” I said.
“E-mail,” she said, and it’s true, my mother spends hours a day on e-mail. I know because she forwards the jokes and stories that her friends send to her. I mostly hit delete without reading them. Then when my mother brings up jokes and I don’t laugh, she gives me gingko pills for my memory.
“Why are you sweating so much?” I asked Brian.
“I had to run to get here, remember?” Bri said. “Jeez.”
“That was two hours ago,” I said.
“I’ll go clean up,” he said, throwing me a resentful look as he went.
When he trudged off to the bathroom, my mother turned to me.
“So tell me,” she said. Her voice was low and intimate. She gave me a certain look. Mischievous eyes.
“Oh, no,” I said.
“Come on,” she said. “You first. Is there anyone new? Any new prospects?”
“I don’t want to have this conversation,” I said.
“I see,” she said.
She opened a magazine with a sharp motion. I could sense her disappointment like a bad smell. I pictured her pores, like gills opening and closing, letting off the scent. Talking about love was a strategic maneuver meant to ally me with her. Talk about men, complain about men, talk about love, complain about love. She angrily flipped pages of her magazine. Her chin quivered in indignation. Wrinkles had developed all at once in the last few years.
“Fine,” I said. “You may as well know. There is someone.”
She leaned in close, and I could smell her slightly bitter skin, her thick perfume, and something else besides. A smell that to me seemed unrelated to anything on the plane. A smell of seawater and mysterious blossoms. I wondered if it was the smell of a lie, because I was about to tell one.
“Don’t leave anything out,” she said.
“His name’s Bruce.” Bruce? “He’s a doctor.”
“A doctor?” she said. “Well that’s more like it. Honestly, my love, you sometimes make questionable choices, and I think you know to whom I’m referring.”
“Well, we don’t have to talk about him,” I said brightly, “because now I’ve got Bruce.”
“So, tell me about Bruce.”
He began to form out of the murk. He swam to the surface. I saw him in a sunlit kitchen wearing an apron that read “Kiss the Cook.” On the couch pulling off his shoes for a nap and then his beeper went off and it was back to work. I saw him shaving. Flossing. I saw him in my bed, asleep. I saw his body, I smelled his hair.
She warmed up as I talked. Bruce sang karaoke to me on my birthday. Bruce brought me coffee in bed in the morning. I could literally feel the heat coming off her body. Her approval was intoxicating. Always like this. I was still twelve years old. A weightless feeling. She liked me.
She clapped her hands. Her body temperature was rising to feverish enjoyment.
“Now we have to find someone for Brian,” she said.
“Easier said than done,” I said.
“Peter Pan syndrome,” she said. “A ten-year-old doesn’t know how to love! But somewhere out there is the perfect woman who doesn’t mind a ten-year-old husband.”
She laughed. She loved this conversation about Brian. We had it all the time. It was easy to feel close when we were talking about him. The thing was: when I went to the bathroom, they would be saying these things about me. We are a family continually forming and reforming alliances. There are days when I can’t remember whose side I’m on.
“What took you so long?” my mother asked when Brian sank into his seat.
“What kind of question is that?” he said. “I was in the bathroom.”
“Mile high club?” I said.
“Oh, you’re hilarious,” Brian said.
“What?” my mother demanded. “What do you mean?”
“She thinks I met a woman,” Brian said. “And I was in the bathroom with her.”
So much for feeling close to my mother. She looked at me in disgust. Loathsome child!
“You know how much Bri wants to meet someone,” she said.
“Mother,” I said, “we all want to meet someone.”
“You have Bruce,” she said.
“Spare me,” I said.
“Who’s Bruce?” Brian said. “That’s a lame name.”
We sat in offended silence for minutes. Then my mother said, “I don’t know why we’re all so touchy.” When we didn’t answer she said, “My father’s sick. Maybe dying. What’s your excuse?”
I don’t know, Mother. I’m hungry. I’m lonely. I don’t like looking at my life through your eyes. Brian’s acting weird. I can’t get a boyfriend. Babies are crying.
“Chicken?” a flight attendant said, leaning over us with a tray of food.
This seemed to make Brian grumpy. He pushed his hair back off his forehead angrily. “No thanks,” he said.
“You love chicken,” my mother said, taking the tray and putting it down in front of him.
“Normally, yes,” he said. “But I recently heard a story that made me lose my appetite for chicken forever.”
I took a tray from the flight attendant and peeled back its saranwrap skin. “What story?” I said.
“I don’t think you really want to hear it while you’re eating,” he said.
“Try me,” I said.
“It’s just that this guy was eating a bucket of chicken in the dark, and when he turned on the light he discovered it wasn’t chicken he was eating, it was a rat.”
“That’s an urban legend,” I said. “That didn’t really happen.”
“How come it happened to someone I know then?”
“Well, we’re not eating in the dark,” my mother said, picking up her chicken. “Are we, Brian?”
“Fine,” he said.
We ate in silence, until my mother bit down on something hard.
“I bit something,” she said, rubbing her teeth.
“Rat bones,” Brian said.
She burrowed into the chicken, and came out with a small gold wedding ring.
“My god,” she said.
It was shining with grease. There were shreds of chicken on it.
“Would you look at that,” my mother said, holding it in the palm of her hand for us to see. Symbol of all symbols for her. The wedding band. Symbol of popularity and prosperity. Bride of chicken.
“How does a ring get into chicken?” I said.
Bri took the ring and wiped off the grease.
“It has an inscription,” he said. “To my one and only.”
“You know what I keep thinking?” my mother said. “I keep thinking where’s the finger?”
When we told the flight attendant, he looked disgusted, as if we were somehow responsible. His forehead creased as if he saw some terrible truth inside me. What did he see? I couldn’t see anything in him. He was plastic. He bobbed along like an orange buoy. Beneath him the waves churned and foamed. Whales rose to the surface and pinned him with their magnanimous eyes.
“We found it in the chicken,” I said. “It’s not ours.”
Over the intercom, he said, “Has anyone on this plane lost a wedding ring?” But no one had. So my mother kept the ring clasped in her fist like something you search for in a dream, something endowed with extraordinary power. Closer than ever, Mother. We’re almost somewhere. She held the ring in her fist and put her fist under her chin as if she were warming it.
“My stomach hurts,” Bri said later.
“Maybe it’s the chicken,” my mother said.
“Maybe you got the finger,” I said.
“Shut up,” Brian said. “Not funny.”
“I wish there was something I could do,” my mother said.
“The ring,” I said. “Use the ring.”
We were sailing west, through blue-gray clouds. The moon flew past my window. The plane was enchanted. The engine made the sound of the sea. People huddled under blankets and slept. I closed my eyes and dreamed about Bruce.
My mother slept for a while, then woke with a start.
“I dreamt you all were telling secrets,” she murmured. Her makeup was smeared from rubbing her face in her sleep. Her eyes rolled up a little, showing white. She slept again. Brian and I looked at each other over the top of her head.
One summer we spent a week on Cape Cod. I was seven and Brian was nine. Our mother was still beautiful, and our father was still in love with her. Brian and I lay in the wet sand, letting the waves rush over us.
“Are there sharks?” I had asked, the idea occurring to me suddenly.
“No,” my father said, firmly. “There are no sharks here.”
“Anyway, I’m watching for them,” my mother said. “I’m scanning the horizon. If I see anything, I’ll give you the signal, and you’ll come running in.”
“What’s the signal?” Brian said.
“The signal is: I love you! I love you! I love you!” She whooped it out like some strange sea bird.
Without my glasses, everything was fuzzy and imperfect. She was a golden blur on the sand. My father was a faint skulking penumbra. Only Brian beside me was in clear focus. His skin was tan and smooth, darker in the creases of his elbows, as if the sun had dripped and puddled there. He was studded with drops of water. Each drop held a rainbow.
“When I go underwater, you have to listen for the signal,” he said. “When you go underwater, I’ll listen.”
We were all on the same side against the sharks. We had a system for staying safe from creatures of the sea! We had a signal. I love you was a swooping bird! My brother was a god. I was generous with my love. Had I ever been generous since?
As the plane made its descent, I saw something big and black undulating in a field below. It could have been black plastic caught in the wind, or it could have been an animal. Something about it struck me as very lonely. A wild, lonely flapping. I watched as we landed, but I couldn’t tell what it was, and then it faded out of sight. People blinked awake as the cabin lights came on. They crawled out of their seats and stood blinking in the aisles.
Brian and I stood up to stretch. Our mother looked at us, suddenly frightened. “I don’t want to see him,” she said.
“Why’d we come then?” Brian asked.
“He doesn’t understand,” my mother said to me. “Only you understand.”
That was when Brian fainted. He sank to the floor and sprawled in the aisle with one arm across his face. Other passengers pushed to get out of the way.
“What’s going on?” my mother said. “Brian?”
He didn’t answer. He looked asleep, one knee bent in a comfortable way.
Everyone around us snapped awake. Someone reached down and flung Brian’s arm off his face. I knelt beside him and touched him. Brian’s eyes were moving under his eyelids. He opened his eyes for a moment. I could see clear down to the bottom of a sea. Someone punched a call button.
“Do you know what’s wrong with him?” my mother asked. “What’s wrong with him? He had a stomach ache. Is anyone coming? He was sick every single fucking month of his life. You were never sick.”
I was filled with exultation. I felt my pupils engorged with light. The flush of warmth traveling in my blood to all my tingling extremities. I was a bright, bright star. I was something large and powerful. Her favorite child. Brian, I whispered, triumphant. A selfish girl.
“I knew he’d leave me,” my mother said in desperation. “Everyone leaves me.” Her makeup ran down her face. In the hotel room I would wash her face gently with a washcloth. She would pluck her eyebrows in the bathroom mirror. I would be ten years old on the toilet seat, watching and loving her.
Behind me an old woman began to cry softly. People all around murmured doctor, doctor. Everyone was scared. I was scared by my own selfishness. Babies were crying. Their mothers held them tighter. I unbuttoned Brian’s shirt to give him air. The sunfish swam through the seaweed of his chest. My mother punched the call button over and over. The plane was enchanted. I was underwater, holding my breath. My lungs became small and compact, a dense capsule squeezing through a tiny portal: Brian’s mouth. The aperture of his eye. I leaned over him. My brother. Seven years old! His wonderful eyes! I wanted to love him wholly again. I said, I can save him, Mother. Then I fell toward him, onto him, into him. For an uncomfortable moment I was him. I felt the largeness of his legs and stomach. I felt heaviness in his bowels. I felt fear. It was not my kind of fear, but his. Mine was tight and fluttering, but his flapped and sailed like a ship. I opened my eyes to see what he saw. The ceiling of the airplane lit like a tunnel, our faces far above, like angels hovering.
For a while there was only ocean. Two fish were swimming ahead of me. They had bright tails. They left trails of light when they swished in any direction. There were sea caves warm with domestic comfort. There were hospital beds hidden behind coral walls. Nurses battled a giant octopus wild with grief. I was nothing more than a pinprick at first. Then I felt the silver point where my limbs and thoughts converged growing suddenly larger. I was relieved to find I had mass again. And then senses. The ocean water was thrillingly cold. I was dizzy when a battalion of skates spread out around me like fans. At first this seemed threatening, but then I began to understand it as a show of respect. An attendant said, “We can not wait for one man. We will not wait for one man.”
I woke as they carried me on a stretcher. Flotsam tossed about. There were shapes and colored lights. There were lists of arrivals and departures dancing neon green. Where was my mother? She was far behind, a tiny worried woman, guarding her heart like the ring she clasped in her fist. Where was my brother? There in my hand. Tiny, and then large. He ran along beside me, squeezing my hand and crying.
“What happened?” I asked.
“You fainted,” he said. His face was loose with tears. “We didn’t know what was going on.”
“You fainted,” I said.
“No,” he said, “it was you.”
There were footsteps all around me, a wonderful, terrestrial sound.
“Don’t leave,” I said.
“No, I won’t,” he said.
His hand was large. He held me in it.
Miciah Bay Gault is director of the MFA in Writing & Publishing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s also editor of the literary journal Hunger Mountain. Her stories and essays have appeared in Tin House, The Sun, The Southern Review, AGNI, and The Literary Review. She lives in Montpelier, Vermont with her husband and three children.