by Raquel Dorman
There is something out of focus about my mother, something buried under the surface, so that interacting with her is like tracking the minute movements of fish under frozen water. The effect is heightened by haphazard layers of clothing, and the shifting gaze of her blue-tinted sclera—a characteristic of Osteogenesis Imperfecta,O.I., the bone disease she was born with—and, of course, the schizophrenia.
The schizophrenia traps her in time like a polar bear on an orphaned plane of ice that is rapidly melting. To my mother, I remain 11—or a 30 that resembles 11—and in March she sends a letter with an alternative history of the pilgrims. In the envelope she includes the magazine cutout of a sunflower and the foil corner of a Goldfish Crackers snack bag. The orange is so intense, she writes. Instructions on gardening come next, then a handmade valentine in late April, the kind seen in elementary school classrooms: red and pink paper hearts glued on white paper. To Raquel. Happy Valentines Day! the card reads. Scrawled at the bottom, Luv, Mom. Two weeks later an identical card arrives, this time written in a blue pen.
It’s difficult for my mother to approach things directly. Red and pink paper hearts on white paper, historical conspiracies, obscure concerns about my welfare—these are the traces of her affections. So I don’t know how to take the word, love, and put it next to her, imagine her falling into it, like a body thrust in cold water, held under the sway of an urgency so human and particular, it would force her to exist, at least for a moment, in the physical world. It feels aggressive. To imagine her falling in love with my father.
They meet at Burger King in the early 80s. He is the manager, and she, a charming customer—I believe this story for years, despite her lifelong battle with anorexia and preoccupation with health food, the lack of evidence my father ever worked there. In truth, they meet at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, a nuclear facility where my mother is hired on as a technical artist, commissioned to draw blueprints of weapons. Before she starts, the government interviews everyone, even the neighbors. Nobody remembers what my father does. Your dad was something else, my mother says, when I ask her about it.
When I think of him, he’s always a little dirty— the tail of his shirt hanging out, uneven mustache, grease stain on his shoulder. Perpetually overheated, rolling the windows all the way down while speeding on the highway, blaring Zepelin and the A.C., so that in my memory they are fused together. Tall— 6’3”, with broad shoulders and long, skinny white legs—he has the air of an orphan. Grown up, but with the same edges. Before he dies, his death is impossible to fathom. It feels as though his sweat is a sign of his vitality. When my father is in a room, you are suffused with warmth, his sheer physicality.
In his prime, my father is strong enough to stop a falling piano from crushing a man on the stairs. It’s one of his favorite stories, a moment of revelation. He eats packs of bacon at 3 am, likes television game shows and political trivia, sex. He wears thinning corduroys and gas station sunglasses, smells slightly of Vic’s Vapor Rub, and goes to Super Cuts. Marky Mark, he calls himself, when he’s in a good mood. He’s funny, charismatic, and has soft eyes. But there’s a latent wildness, a sense that, given the right circumstances, anything could happen—something dishonest but sincere about him, a proclivity for risk that follows him like an electromagnetic cloud. Once, he tells me about walking away from a man in a dark alley, pointing at him with a gun. What if he pulled the trigger? I ask. What would have happened then? He shrugs.
My parents divorce when I am three, because of the drugs and general incompatibility, the energy necessary to bring their differences only temporarily sustainable, like an unstable chemical union. Improbable in the first place, their marriage closes over completely—except for my brother and I.
I’ve never had pleasure from a man, my mother confides in me on one of my visits in adulthood. She doesn’t elaborate. Well into my twenties at that point, I assume I know what she means, but growing up, she never talks about any of it: sex; the body; hormones; love. We move so often I skip sex ed. and health class in three separate school districts. Since my mother doesn’t change or shower around me, when puberty comes, it feels like an ambush.
Either from obliviousness or chutzpah, my mother has always been impervious to embarrassment. She picks up cans under the feet of people eating at the park to redeem them, asks to take her quarter-glass of lemonade at the end of a fancy restaurant meal to go. God DAMN it, Allyn, my grandmother says, humiliated by my mother’s antics. My grandfather’s response: Jesus. Muffled and deeply-wrought. They can’t help but take her weirdness, her endless difficulty, personally. It chafes me on both sides. Even as a child, I understand she can’t help it. When I am in 2nd grade, my mother comes home with a purple Barney umbrella from a garage sale, and when I refuse take it, she uses it instead.
It scares me to think about the vulnerability of her body in the world—a body my mother has spent her life trying to get away from, frail casing—as though her spirit were climbing higher and higher up a pole. In her worst years, she walks for hours in penance to atone for something she can neither define nor lessen, living on what sustenance the spirits will allow. The voices she hears are her guide; the body is her puppet, manipulated in elaborate dramas of redemption; the suffering is real. Always, what the spirits demand is the same: sacrifice. Be good. Be good. Be good, she whispers. After I graduate college, the spirits don’t permit her to stand, and when my best friend and I go to visit, she opens the door on her knees.
After the split, my parents communicate solely in relation to my father’s visits, which are erratic and tenuous. The car broke down he says, from a pay phone, an hour before he’s supposed to arrive. Money, kidney stones, vague emergencies— the issues are invariably mechanical or medical, and always drug related. It’s not that he doesn’t want to see us, it’s more that his deepest happiness is perpetually eclipsed by his momentary weakness, and we are just casualties—between the two, he is endlessly battling himself.
During those years, my dad moves frequently. L.A., Sunnyvale, cities far enough away he visits mostly for birthdays, bringing aluminum tins of Entemann’s chocolate cake with wax candles dotted through the fudge. For a few months, he lives near us in Walnut Creek, working at a pizza place downtown. The inside is filled with dark wood and the smell of tomato sauce, and to me there’s something elegant about his uniform, the way he holds the pizza pans aloft, weaving through the tables like he’s carrying a prize. On his breaks, we play board games at the booths, sipping the soda we otherwise can’t have. Our order is always the same: pepperoni with extra cheese. The day he moves in, my brother and I fall asleep next to him on the carpet, the window open and the radio on, happy.
Unlike my mother, my father doesn’t have the benefits of family. His mother commits suicide when he is fourteen; he finds her. His dad, in the military, kicks him out. He has a baby sister. He wanders. He and his throng of friends pull harmless pranks, like setting all the alarms at the clock store to one time. They go to rock concerts. Take drugs. As an adult, he joins the military for a few years, stationed at a desk job in Germany, and leaves with an honorable discharge. He never sees anyone in his family again. My brother and I never meet anyone from that tree.
In fourth grade, my mother signs me up for a local Mexican dance troupe after seeing them perform at the public library. The other girls are all in high school, and spend the practices gossiping in Spanish. They look at me curiously; kindly; help me put on makeup before the performances and adjust my dress. I focus on trying to twirl the long sides of my skirt, which direction to turn at each song's changing tempos. I botch several performances. But the passion of it thrills me, stamping my heels into the ground in the complicated patterns that leave their memories in my ankles for years. It makes me feel like I love it more, somehow, the ground—learning new ways to press into it.
In my mother’s own 4th grade class, when they have to make miniature replicas of California missions, she digs up adobe, and makes tiny authentic bricks. The mud is abundant in Martinez, her hometown, tinted an earthy red. From the hillside, she mixes the adobe with water to make it malleable, flattens out a sheet of the mixture to bake in the sun. In her mission, she affixes a miniature cross to the miniature wall in the chapel; by miniscule pews, a small figure is praying. Trees grow nearby a miniature wall. The teacher calls home to admonish my grandmother for helping her. My grandmother has no idea what she’s talking about, completely unaware of the assignment at all.
In high school, my mother dreams of owning a Wolfhound, and moves into a phase of making her own clothes. Her oil paintings litter the house; pastels, pen-and-ink sketches. She daydreams about becoming a tattoo artist, and I grow up with an ingrained view of tattoos as magical creations. In college, when I go to get mine, I have to convince the artist that I actually want it. No, he says, shaking his head— I don’t see it. I insist. You’re just not the type, he says, turning slightly red. The day it happens, there is a raging blizzard, and I sit in a stupor for five hours as my best friend clutches my hand; she leaves only once, to get us bagels. The studio, on the second story, has a glass storefront facing the street, and I sit in front of the window, watching the snow drift, my back under the tattoo artist’s hand as the ink takes shape in sleek curvatures, like gusts of wind. The hours blink by. My best friend and I barely make it home. Giddy, we catch the last bus going back to our remote campus, and collapse.
My mother is notable for her contradictions: childlike wonder, innate artistry, a streak of prudishness, a sweet tooth, a stubborn jaw—but there's another side to her as well. She likes male attention and going on dates. During my childhood, she racks up considerable debt buying lingerie at various department stores, one that my grandfather pays off years later. Plus— she’s beautiful: high cheekbones in a heart-shaped face, long brown hair, gray, almond eyes. Her look is unusual, her features are hard to place. In her 20s, my mother decides she looks like the people of the Siberian steppes and tells people this ever after.
As a child, I like to perch in her room as she gets ready for PWP (Parents without Partners) dances in her purple satin dress with a sweetheart neckline and huge shoulder pads, applying lipstick; I trail behind her as she runs errands around town in a spandex exercise outfit cinched tightly at the waist with an elastic belt. But there’s something innocent about it, her, as though the culmination of her ambition is just that: attention. She is small and female and admired, a tiny, fit figure in tight clothes, with a girlish voice and unbounded enthusiasm for the world.
Going through her boxes from storage after college, I find a series of sexy photos of her shrouded in thick black paper; the paper, with an embossed gold rim, folded over like a secret. Her hair is done; she wears a lace teddy and full makeup. The photos have a dreamy, brushed over quality, as though she is smiling from a place that's never existed, and I am visiting her there. I bury them in storage, knowing that, like everything I have from her, they are as impossible to get rid of as to keep.
I look for her in small, impossible resurrections.
A phrase; a gesture. I see her in the cheekbones of strangers, the use of multiple sweaters; in anyone suffering. For a moment, a boy walking by the side of the road becomes her, his small shoulders hunched underneath his backpack’s weight.
In preschool, I hold my mother’s hands as though they are the reins through which I’ve learned to control the world. My smile is shy and hopeful. The smile presses my cheeks up underneath my eyes, flaring out at the edges.
Memory is imperfect. Rather than narrowing the past, it multiplies it, spreading out into various tributaries that go to different places. My brother swears he remembers the day my hair became curly. In the story, I am around two and we are living in Martinez. It must be nighttime, as I am due for a bath and this is the defining moment, the bath—when I go in, my hair is straight, when I come out, curly—and curly ever since. The father I remember that is different from the one my brother remembers, as the mother. The memories I have, gradually being overwritten by time and other memories—and none of them are entirely correct to begin with. Love, like history, a series of approximations.
Sometimes I think about what it means to be the product of an unlikely combination, a living sum of the way two incredibly different beings related to each other, and what we do with the shadows in our personal mythologies; if, like in Radiology, there is an art to reading the images of the past, their varying deposits of emptiness and tissue, and how much of my parents lives finds a home in me.
Writers are cautioned to avoid rhetorical questions, and I always assumed this was because rhetorical questions are premised on what is implicit, that such a redundancy only reduces the power of what has been said. Now I think the opposite, that rhetorical questions harness what is unanswerable, unknown, and this is both the power and the danger of them—luminous tents pulling up intimations of a knowledge that everyone wants, impossibly, to fill.
In their wedding photo, my mother’s head comes just to the top of my father’s shoulder. It is his first marriage, her second. She is six years older. The ceremony takes place in my grandparent’s living room with a small gathering of friends and family. She wears a filmy 70s style dress, slightly discolored, that already carries a sense of nostalgia, like vacation Polaroids curling at the edges. My father wears goofy 80s glasses and a button down with faint stripes and a silky dark tie. My mother looks pleased and faintly anxious; my father’s expression vacant; the corners of his mouth barely move. His smile is lopsided, just like mine. Neither one of them is fully there, their bodies standing together loosely, wrapped in a secrecy I have inherited. That has become mine.
Originally from California, Raquel lives in Brooklyn. She holds an MFA in poetry from NYU, and is currently working on a hybrid prose/memoir manuscript. In her other life, she works at a yoga studio and wanders around the city.