Excerpt from No Man’s Brooklyn, novel-in-progress.
Toward the end my mother began to open up. Of course I didn’t know the end was coming, nor did my father.
My mother, during the last several months, had become a shut-in, a convalescent, addled by a smorgasbord of symptoms. The doctors couldn’t diagnose her mysterious illness.
My father alternated between being touchingly tender with her, a side of him I had never seen before, and criticizing her for what he perceived as her lack of will, her lack of desire to want to get better.
He often insisted that it was all in her head, that she was the one making herself sick. If there was something wrong with you the doctors would have found it by now, he bluntly reasoned.
Sometimes my mother contested my father’s verdict, other times she said nothing. Eventually she stopped caring altogether and relented to her sickness and no longer tried to justify or defend the nature of its reality.
Still I never thought she wouldn’t get better. It just seemed a matter of time. Especially since my mother’s previous phases had run courses which eventually burned themselves out.
Influenced by my Aunt Dotty, a raging kleptomaniac, my mother had become a thief for a while. She would shoplift merchandise from Macy’s, Bloomingdales, J.C. Penney, and other department stores. That lasted about two years.
Influenced by my father she became a cokehead. That lasted several years and then she quit cold turkey after she and my father didn’t wake up one Christmas day until nearly five in the evening. The previous night’s snowstorm which had fallen up their noses had buried them in a deep slumber. I tried to wake them on several occasions but they were dead to the world. I sat in the living room and waited and waited. When my mother finally did emerge from the bedroom and saw that I had been waiting and that it was nearly dark out she cried and apologized profusely and swore off coke for good.
There were other phases she cycled through as well, so when she got sick I figured it would be for an indeterminate period of time and then she would get better and be done with the sickness phase.
So yea, toward the end my mother began to open up, and I, by proxy and default, became her confessor.
I remember the day she told me there was nothing inside her, nothing in there.
I listened as she explained that she had been reading a lot and now understood that people had a life inside of them, a child inside of them, different people inside of them. She said there was a lot going on that we didn’t see and yet she had never ever felt that way, she felt nothing inside, just emptiness.
It was weird. I felt exactly the same as my mother, but opposite. I had often felt there was nothing outside of me, nothing out there.
Hearing my mother say she was empty inside was uncomfortable but what was a thousand times more uncomfortable was the thing she told me two weeks before she killed herself.
She was embedded in the couch, surrounded by her cadre of self-help books. I don’t remember the titles of the books she read, but I do remember two names—John Bradshaw and Melody Beattie. Those two names became the symbolic ambassadors that I associated with my mother’s self-help frenzy.
I could tell that my mother had been crying. Her face was worn, her eyes puffy. Wadded-up tissues were in her hand. She was pretty doped up on whatever medication she was on and reacted slowly, gingerly, to my entering the living room.
Daniel, she said.
Hi Ma, I said. How are you feeling?
Do you need anything?
No-no I’m fine, just . . . why don’t you sit down for a while? Come sit in here with me.
Her words were hazy and tentative, casualties of fog.
I sat cross-legged on the floor, facing the couch.
We talked for a while, I don’t remember about what. What I quite vividly remember is what I catalogued as the marked beginning to the bombshell she was about to drop.
You don’t remember my father do you?
Not really, just a little bit.
What do you remember?
I remember that he once gave me a suit as a present and another time he gave me a Viewfinder. One that came with pictures of dinosaurs.
Wow yes, I think I remember that too.
My mother’s voice was thin and parched.
Do you want some water, I asked her.
No no I’m fine, she said. Listen I want to tell you something. It’s not easy but I want to tell you, I think you should know, I want someone to know.
I had no idea what my mother was about to say but my stomach let me know that I wasn’t going to like it.
I waited. And stared.
My mother had always been quite beautiful. The piercing blueness of her eyes, the striking angularity of her features, her dancer’s neck. Traces of that woman remained, but mostly she was gone, blanched into a whisper.
The whisper spoke—When I was a little girl my father molested me. I didn’t know. All these years and I didn’t know and now I know now I remember what he did to me and I wanted to tell someone I needed to tell someone it felt important to say it. I’m sorry Daniel I needed to say it I’m sorry I’m sorry.
She started crying, her head toggling.
I was shocked. And pissed. Why the fuck was she telling me? Why was I the one she had chosen?
I don’t wanna hear this, I heard myself snap.
Daniel I’m sorry I just needed to tell someone and you’re my son—
(I tuned her out and tuned in to my own inner-rant, Exactly I’m your son not your fucking therapist, I’m not the one you should be talking to you about your father molesting you, that’s what therapists are for and psychiatrists, not sons)
After she was done speaking she kept crying.
I felt sorry for her. And hated her.
That seemed to be my general reaction toward my mother throughout my childhood—pity and revulsion.
Perhaps it was because she was the first woman I ever loved and she broke my heart clean through. The sort of original heartbreak that was impossible to get over or wholly recover from. Perhaps what I’m saying is just a bunch of tragic Greek bullshit mixed in with psycho-babble so I can keep myself quarantined in a state of epic self-importance, an isolation chamber of my own making. Who knows?
What I do know is that I got up and left her there crying. I had nothing to offer her in that moment. Every battle my mother had fought I had fought too. In my own small, silent, distant way. Not this time. I refused to dive into the wreckage of my mother’s incest. The vagrant emptiness of my mother’s landscape was a void in which I didn’t want to get swallowed.
I remember going into my room and lying down on my bed and seething. I needed someone to blame and scapegoated John Bradshaw. I directed all my scorn, fury and contempt at John Bradshaw, as if he were the one who had molested my mother, he the white devil who had planted seeds of shame.
My mother didn’t mention the incest again, nor did I.
When she killed herself two weeks later, I imagined that the past had risen, like a dark insurmountable tide, and drowned her.
I promised myself I would never ever let the same thing happen to me.
At all costs I would beat the past, even if it meant sacrificing a vital part of me to small, vicious gods.