Was it just her, or had life begun to feel like an army of ants crawling through one’s capillaries? Did enthusiasm eventually give room to tiredness, when overcrowded by one’s disappointments? She watched the cautionary tale of her mother’s wilted curiosity; sitting in the downward-turned corners of her mouth, waiting to expire, along with the last of her youth? Waiting —
Until There Was None.
If ever mother had the patience, the awareness and the discipline enough to write her autobiography — for, surely, she had the vanity enough! — that should’ve been its tittle. Until There Was None.
But the joy: Where had it gone from her? There would still be moments of visible glee, some days — a sort of tightly wound hysteria; the same inside job that made her mother’s face quiver and the loose skin of her arms shake after each gesture. She’d be like that in front of her girlfriends when seeking their alliance via pity; or in front of the 17th Century paintings in the galleries of Eastern Germany. (Then, she would always speak to Nola, lecturing, lying, not knowing how to stop.) The sight of it — Nola eventually found herself despising (in men especially, much later): of something pushing — being pushed — past one’s irritability, beyond the limit of tolerance and truth. Strained. Pushed. Perpetually trying.
Silence and walking away, to Nola, seemed easier. And it was reasonable, in theory, for people to coexist in a peaceful fulfillment of their basic needs. But then, they would always tangle themselves up in the ideas of the pursuit of their own happiness, where flaunting of entitlement and justice would become a sport. The calmness of a grateful life had long surpassed her mother — that woman was way, way far down the line. And all there was to live by — was a long list of her grievances and other people’s debts.
“You’re just like your father!” her mother threw at Nola, as if being calm and good was somehow indecent. Once Nola turned twelve, however, there wouldn’t be much left to hurl at her expense. Because before, when the two women found themselves alone in the house, mom reached for anything to throw: her father’s rain boots, the ribbed hose from the Soviet-made (read: nearly useless) washing machine; wet laundry; mom’s patent leather belt from the fur coat that she’d demanded for her thirtieth birthday.
One time, unrooted by her madness, the woman tipped a pot of cold cabbage soup that had been sitting on the stove, waiting for her father’s dinnertime. She had been panicking in the kitchen — (mom always panicked, in the kitchen) — and when she found her words surpassing their brutality, she speedily relayed her gaze from one sharp object to the next; and after an unsuccessful search, reached up behind and steadily poured the pot of cold liquid onto Nola’s head. The slimy cabbage crawled under the collar, under the skin; and the orange, chalky layer of frozen oil tangled up in her hair and stayed there for weeks to come. When finally, most of the liquid hit the floor, Nola looked up: Not one, but two women stood there, drenched in terrible humiliation.
For the first time, that night, Nola had gone beyond forgiveness. Mom was susceptible to losing her control, she realized; but from some losses, one could not come back.
“You’re just like her father!”
Blunt objects or her mother’s limbs ungracefully ended their trajectories anywhere along Nola’s small body. If she tipped over, mom dragger her by the hair to rooms with better lighting, where harsher punishment ensued. While mother pushed and pushed and pushed — the child stood, or lied still, in silence. She learned to receive. She bared. She endured. And secretly she hoped that surrender would make her mother slow down. So visible was mother’s sorrow, so palpable — unhappiness, that from behind the raised arm with which Nola guarded softer places, she pitied her aggressor. She waited for the feeling of tremendous heat in all the new swellings. She’d welcome them, eventually giving herself over to resignation, and to sleep. A strange bliss would be found at the end of every horror. For one was never given more than one could handle.
In those days, Nola still could still portion out the world into manageable pixels. There would anger. Disappointments. A one unhappy woman. Through repetition, Nola learned that mother’s love was functioning through let down expectations. If one was loved by her — one owed her, forever. The closer Nola neared her own womanhood, the more difficult, the more unbearable would become that love — and debt; until one day, none in her family could ever able undo, unsay the things that they had thrown at each other, in an attack or self-defense. And in the loss of reason between all cause and effect, it would begin to feel like pure insanity.
And then, one summer, mom had admitted herself to a resort on the Ukrainian Republic’s shore, famous for housing patients of political insanity and tuberculosis. She dropped off Nola at the house of her in-laws, called up her husband and said that she had lost the sight of “her own woman”, and that she was going away, to find her self, for an indefinite amount of time.
Unheard of! Scandal! Her father’s mother ranted for about a week. But quite quickly, the old woman focused on saving the family’s face and made up more suitable stories about her daughter-in-law’s passage.
“Yeah, a bleeding ulcer. I know: that poor thing! She hadn’t eaten for a month!”
“A teacher’s conference attended by the Ministry of Education. She’s getting a Hero of Labor.”
But in her own house, behind her mother’s back, the old woman talked. She called her names for every single time she found Nola staring out of the window or writing letters to no address that mother left behind.
“A flea-ridden bitch — that’s what that woman is!” the old woman muttered on repeat, when she discovered a clump of tangled hair above the nape of Nola’s neck which Nola harvested for nearly a year by then. The knot had grown so large, that during the summer, she began to pin her grandma’s rhinestone brooches into it.
No remedy was masterful enough to get that thing out! Lord knows, grandma tried! The naked old woman labored and puffed in the wet steam of her bathhouse, her deflated breasts flapping above Nola’s shoulders, like freshly baked Georgian lavashes. After two hours of brushing, oiling, lathering; of pulling and of being pulled; of swearing, sweating, renouncing; and baring and receiving — the hair had to be cut out; and Nola walked away with half of it missing from the back of her head and a headache that took days to sleep off.
The story tilted then. Inside her family, she never would be able to find much calm. That night, unable to find a spot on her scalp that wasn’t raw and throbbing, with the face down in her pillow, Nola would begin to plot her own escape, with or without her hair.
And now, here it was: Her thick and magical, red hair! It had began to slip out of its follicles and clog up all the drains in the apartment; and after every shower, the water drained slowly, allowing for the soap scum to settle on the walls of her tub, like growth rings on a cut down tree.
Must color mother’s hair, she decided. The shower head was dripping at an even pace against the standing pool of water, in the bathroom. Mom lost all memory. Her dignity did not belong to her. It mattered to the living though — to those who were living, trying, still — so, Nola owed someone that.