Jess Kapp is a lecturer in the department of geosciences at the University of Arizona. She writes short fiction and memoir, and blogs for the Huffington Post. She is currently finishing a memoir about her high altitude field adventures doing geologic research in Tibet. You can find Jess on twitter @jess_kapp, Facebook, and her website http://jesskapp.com.
“I’m not getting enough sleep,” I heard my mother say.
The first time I heard her say it I was just five. I am not sure how many times she said that phrase over the course of my childhood, but I knew she meant it, because the skin around her eyes puckered when she made this assertion. It always meant she was serious, when that skin around her eyes puckered. It also happened when she was gazing out the front door, staring down the long walkway that led off our property, a hopeful question caught in the back of her throat. She never spoke when she stood in the frame of our flimsy screen door, but her eyes puckered.
“OH-livia, your father’s home,” my mother called from the screen door, a freshly lit Merit dangling from her perfectly manicured fingers. She often announced his return at the end of the day as if it were a surprise, the declaration tinged ever so slightly with scorn. She knew my father coming home was the highlight of my day, and I knew she hated me for it. His arrival triggered near-Pavlovian responses in us both. I would abandon my make-believe and rush at my father with joy and abandon. My mother’s response was subtler. She lost the pucker around her eyes.
“What’s up O.J.?” my father asked breezily as I ran to meet him in front of our green-sided house with black shutters. There was a lot of black in our house. Black faux-leather couch, black coffee mugs in the kitchen cupboards, black satin sheets on my parents’ bed. All of the black items in our house were unnecessary purchases made by my mother. We had a fine set of goldenrod yellow coffee mugs that matched our stove and our telephone hanging on the kitchen wall, but mother wanted black. Now in the mornings, when she smoked her first cigarette of the day, talking on that yellow phone, cord stretched across the kitchen to the little white table by the windows, her black coffee in a black mug was like an inky smudge on the dawn of a new day. Sometimes I couldn’t even see the coffee in the mug, they ran together into a tiny black hole. But our front yard was open and bright, green grass growing strong across the whole property, my father’s dark hair shining as it absorbed the heat from the sun. Running to him was like somehow escaping the coffee and couch black hole. The minute I was in his vicinity, close enough that I could smell his after-shave, I was trapped in an orbit around him, held there by his personal gravity, safe from the pull of the black. I would reply to his daily greeting with, “not much, pops,” and before we were up the front steps, plotting which old vampire movie we would watch while sprawled on our backs on the living room floor, my mother was out of sight.
O.J. was exclusively my father’s nickname for me. “She’s sweet and bright,” he would say with a wink when my mother asked him why he insisted on calling me after a juice. She didn’t acknowledge that they were the initials she chose for me, just acted as if my father was belittling my sophisticated moniker. She picked my name, Olivia Jane, without consulting my father. When she was pregnant, a skinny little twig with toothpick legs and a basketball belly, he would joke with her that he wanted to name me Nunzio (my father’s side is Italian), regardless of my gender, and she would roll her turquoise, blue-shadowed eyes and tell him he would not have a say in the naming of his first (and only) child. And so on the day I entered this world my mother dubbed me Olivia Jane, and no discussion was invited. She thought there was no way my father could cutesy up the name Olivia. She was wrong.
“OH-livia, come here please,” she called from her bedroom on Sunday morning. I hesitated to enter my parents’ cave-like room. The bed was big and square, the mattress filled with water, so it sloshed under the motion of a body. With the black sheets and navy blue comforter it was the Bermuda triangle of beds, and I never had the urge to crawl in next to my mother and snuggle up with her on a rainy day, the way my friends told me they did with their mommies. The door to that bedroom was always closed, occupied or not. The one time I entered that room without being summoned I was five years old and had an earache. I climbed onto that bed, looking for comfort, hitting my kneecap against the hard, unforgiving frame that held up the water mattress. I was afraid of the pain in my ear, and too young to understand that the ear infection I had could very well cause my eardrum to burst. I didn’t dare complain about the kneecap injury, the ear seemed more important. My mother was lying in the fetal position in that dark, clammy bed, no visible route into her arms, so I curled up like a cat at the foot of the bed, my aching ear pressed hard to the cool mattress. She felt the waves my tiny body created, small ripples that undulated beneath her, and rose without a word. I wept quietly, tears streaming into my throbbing ear, as she tuned the little black and white TV on her dresser to Sesame Street. Satisfied that I would stay put under the watchful eye of my Big Bird babysitter, she shuffled off with a heavy sigh to the bathroom to shower. I had no idea where my father was.
This time, I knew where my father was. He had left the previous day for a business trip and wouldn’t be back until the following evening. I was the only one in the
house to take up her call. My ear started to ache a little, and for a moment I considered that I might be getting sick.
“What’s wrong mother?” I asked timidly.
“OH-livia, would you please bring me my Merits from the kitchen table, the black ashtray, and some honey and lemon warmed on the stove? My throat is killing me.” I heard her sighing the words, but couldn’t see her face. She was in the fetal position, as usual, her back to the door. Maybe this is why she doesn’t sleep well, I thought. She needs to stretch out her body, wiggle her toes, free her face from behind her elbows. I must have stood there a little too long, staring at the Lima bean-shaped lump that was my mother, waiting for her to face me, because I heard the slosh of the mattress, like stomach acid bubbling after a bad meal, and it startled me to attention. I backed out of the cave-room quickly, not giving her time to shoo me away. My held breath escaped in a burst as I closed her door.
I had seen her make honey and lemon on the stove many times. It was the one home remedy that she went back to over and over when I was sick as a young child. I hoped she wasn’t getting sick. My father wasn’t due back for another 36 hours. Treading lightly toward the kitchen I reasoned that her sore throat was simply the result of too many cigarettes smoked while chattering on the yellow phone. I grabbed a small saucepan, added honey and a few squeezes of lemon juice, and set it to warm on the back burner. Her pack of Merits lay open on the white table, next to the black ashtray she always used. It was spotless, that ashtray. She washed it nightly. I had watched her soap it gently, rinse it thoroughly, and dab it dry with a soft dishtowel, wondering how
someone could make cleaning an ashtray look like bathing a tender newborn baby. I half expected her to coo at that thing, her hands turning pink in the warm water, moonlight peeking in through the tiny window over the sink that pointed out toward my yellow and green swing set in the back yard. The swing set that took me to Disneyland, the beach – anywhere beyond the black.
I put the warm honey concoction into a tiny plastic Mickey Mouse bowl, like she always did for me, balanced it on top of the black ashtray, shoved her cigarettes into my pocket, and carried it all back to her room. This would be the second time I entered her room uninvited and without knocking first. The dull thudding in my ear started up again, just enough to mess with my concentration, and I almost dropped the ashtray and honey bowl. She heard me tiptoe in, and she rolled toward the sound of me, one eye cracking open just enough to make sure I was real.
“Cigarettes,” was the first thing she said. I had to set the honey bowl down on her nightstand in order to fish them out of my pocket. She unfurled her body and produced a lighter from God knows where, handing it to me to light her up. My stomach flipped. Was she really asking me to light her cigarette? I prayed the lighter would work on the first try.
As she inhaled I gave her the ashtray, gently setting it next to her armpit on the bed. She was leaning up on her bent arm now, lost in the ecstasy of her first drag of the day. Her hair hung down onto the black satin sheets, so silky that it melted into the fabric as if it was connected to it. I offered her a teaspoon, picked up the warm bowl of honey, and brought it close to her face so she could dip the small, silver spoon daintily into the
golden fluid. Carefully she brought the spoon to her narrow, pink lips, and extended her tongue to gently harvest a dab of the home remedy. Her eyes puckered and I knew I had screwed up. Too much lemon? Too hot? Not mixed well enough? I waited for her to tell me what I had done, but she simply handed me the spoon, took another drag, squashed out her barely smoked Merit and recoiled her body into her favorite sleeping position. “Thank you, Oh-livia,” was all she said.
I spent the rest of Sunday as I normally did, running wild through the local fields with a few of the neighborhood kids, deep in a world of our own making. Trees were our houses, mounds of dirt our community gathering places, acorns and leaves our treasures, accumulated and hidden in secret spots behind old, gnarled tree stumps and under rocks. Shoes were optional on Sundays, as were regular meals and using a proper bathroom when nature called. Some Sundays, my mother would yell from the kitchen window, “OH-livia, come in for lunch,” and I would return home to quickly inhale a peanut butter sandwich and plastic Tupperware cup of Kool-Aid. If my father was home, he would come and find me, our sheep dog trotting at his heels, and we would sit together and savor chunks of Swiss cheese and salami dipped in mustard, followed by a very ceremonious cracking open of a fresh pomegranate, digging out the juicy seeds to share as an after meal treat. On this Sunday, I went eight hours without a meal or a proper bathroom visit, content to hide out in my pretend world, a neighbor kid bringing me a snack from her house after she finished her lunch. The dog was locked in the basement, dirty from a frolic down by the river.
When the sky turned pink I figured I should check on my mother. I hadn’t heard her voice all day, and had avoided going inside our house since I had delivered her the honey and lemon. Making my way up our long walkway, feet dragging like they do in those dreams when you are being chased but can’t get any speed, I noticed my mother standing in the flimsy screen doorway. Smoke curled up from her hand that was out of sight, dangling by her side, probably brushing against the satiny fabric of her black kimono. I thought maybe I was in trouble, had forgotten something I was supposed to do that day. But she didn’t say a word. She looked right past me, past the walkway, past the healthy green grass, the blue light of her eyes escaping the black hole.
“Mother, why are you waiting for pops tonight?” I thought she had forgotten his business trip, or that it was Sunday.
She turned her face to me, her puckered eyes not registering who I was or what I was saying. “I’m not waiting for your father,” was all she said. It was at that moment I realized, her evening smoke at the screen door had nothing to do with my pops. She was waiting for something, or someone, that I didn’t know. Someone she belonged to, who was not a part of our life together. Someone who made her eyes pucker.
As I entered the house, skirting around her carefully, her cigarette touched the top of my hand, just for a second, but long enough to singe the skin and cause me to gasp. Her puckered eyes flicked over to me for a second, in obligatory concern, but still she said nothing. I went to the bathroom and ran my hand under cold water. When I came out, she was out of sight again.
That was the last year my father called me O.J. After his business trip he started calling me Liv. It seemed to be a subliminal message, as much as it was my new nickname. When he was trying to find me he would call out, “Liv,” in his crisp voice, and it sounded more like a deeper question than simply an inquiry of my whereabouts. Liv? Live? I wasn’t sure anymore what he was asking.