We live overseas and have for decades. My son, who is 13, has never lived in the United States. Expats are fond of saying that we’re all running from something.
We’d been on vacation for three weeks when Qatar is too hot. My husband checks his email, asks me to step outside. Our seven-year-old is Lego-ing. I’m making lunch. I go out, sit on the porch. “It’s your mother,” he says. My mother. A woman I haven’t seen in 14 years, a woman who sent me to live with my father when I was 13. I’m 49.
I have a number to call. I call, from the British West Indies, sitting on a plastic beach chair outside our rented pink stilt house. “This is Aimée Steiner.”
“Oh my God,” says a voice – vintage Long Island, “I finally found you. I can’t believe it. They said you didn’t exist, but I knew, I knew you did.” Oh, yeah, I get that a lot. Not.
The guy on the phone waits for me to say something. I do not know what to say. I ask a question, “Who is this?” My head swivels toward the ocean. I ought to be looking at something. I see nothing, not the ocean, not the sky. Anything connected to her is cold, hard, bright terror.
He says, “This is Joe.” Like his name is a color, blue, or a number, 6. He doesn’t say more. I repeat his name. “Joe.” I turn to look at my husband with kaleidoscope eyes. I’m wishing that the lid went back onto whatever is about to pop out of this jar of my mother, my unpredictable, demonic, romantic, violent, chaotic, wicked mother.
“Amy,” he mispronounces my name like everyone does, “Your mother is in the hospital and there are people, a lot of…,” I remember the italics in his voice, on that word, lot, “…..people living in her house. There are bankers, lawyers coming around, and this guy. They are trying to take everyting from your mother. (He says ‘ting’!) I know your mother a long time and she’s a sweet lady, and I tried to take care of her but the police say I got no legal right and I knew I had to find [a] heir. I spent thirty bucks to find you. You live in Qatar, right? I don’t even know where that is.” My mouth opens and closes like a fish trying to breath out of the water. Joe ransomed me for thirty dollars without any evidence that my mother had a daughter.
He mistakes my silence. “Are you there? This is Joe.”
Finally I say, “Yes.” He expects more. My mother possesses the rare gift of being able to make me speechless.
“You need to see her,” he tells me. I nod. I do not want to see her. I’m not sure at this point why I’m crying. I love my mother. I miss my mother. I have missed my mother my whole life. She just forgot me one day. Every night for years I said to my husband, “Don’t forget me,” before we slept. My mother hates me. I don’t know why.
I never sleep. I swallowed a No Doze pill in infancy and ever since my entire body is alert 24/7. The psychiatrist I once saw called it hypervigilance. I’m a VERY organized woman. I imagine every possible iteration of every possible contingency. Tell me anything. I’ll remember it even if I have 75 other things to remember that day.
And I’m fucking bluffing, that’s what I’m doing. Bluffing. My go-to childhood mantra starts up with that weird-ass call, “No one knows. No one knows.” No one knows, not even me. My childhood has two bookends: the night the rape and torture began (the night my father left) and the night the rape and torture was exposed and unintentionally ended. My mother shared me with a man when I was 12. The following morning that man had a catastrophic response to his own collusion. He ended my sexual slavery, though not intentionally.
I hold my breath all the time, and I’m doing it now, here, at the beach. My hand is frequently splayed up upon my throat or shielding my chest as if I am witnessing horror. My arm is so often in that pose that I have to be treated for frozen shoulder now and again. I jump and cry out if anyone enters a room without my knowing, but here up on stilts, I can see no one is coming.
Joe tells me my mom’s room number at Southampton Hospital, and then says it isn’t legal to talk on the cell phone while driving in New York which is what he is doing. He stops speaking and says, as an aside, “Wow, there’s an accident out here. Traffic is terrible!” I shake my head in stupefied wonder that the man other end of this call can say such trifling things. This conversation is monumental, but not for him. Joe concludes saying he’ll tell my mother that I am coming. I do not recall agreeing to visit my mother. Yet Joe, in his solid assurance on the matter, in his obvious love for my mom, has basically insisted. I somehow know that he has no agenda other than to help her. OK. I’ll go. She will hurt me.
I call my mother moments later. When I reach her in the hospital she responds with customary vehemence, ending with “…and it’s all your fault!” I’m afraid, especially of women. I have a knack for making friends with really cruel women. Defining anything in the negative is a nebulous business, but it’s a large part of who I am. I’m a woman who has never not been afraid.
When I lost my mother at 13, my life deliquesced from a quixotic, terrifying adventure into a something similar to the old television show Dallas. My father, who died a while ago from liver failure, was a good salesman but lacked integrity, sobriety, and class. My mother is a compulsive liar, a wicked predator, and saturated with class. Unsurprisingly their marriage was brief, beginning with the blinding delight of first love, and ending plainly in the light of more practical concerns. My mother is impossible and utterly cruel. My father is selfish and a liar. There was no hope at all.
I haven’t been home to New York in a very long time. I live in the Middle East where no one knows me and no one is capable of knowing me. I’m strange outsider in my daily life. My mother taught me many things. One of them was this – the safest place to be is alone.