My mom doesn’t understand heartbreak because she’s never had her heart broken. She’s always been the one to break hearts, the one to close the door on people, the one to say goodbye. When my heart broke, she didn’t understand why I couldn’t immediately get back on my feet. She didn’t understand why I missed someone regardless of circumstances. She most definitely didn’t understand why I would unconditionally love someone who could bring all kinds of tears to my eyes.
But she loves me. She can’t stand her sister. She tolerates my dad. She blocks out everyone else. But she loves me, she says. Forever and unconditionally. She’s worried about me when I’m out in the city late at night. She sends a string of text messages in the span of a few minutes when I don’t reply immediately. She drives four hours through barren states to see me. It’s a crazy kind of love that only a mother could give.
“I don’t need friends,” she utters all the time. She has an approachable disposition, and a warm demeanor, but she’s cold at the core. She’s calloused. She’s afraid of people who will undercut her. She likes to feel nothing. I, on the other hand, would rather feel something than nothing at all. Numbness chills me to the bone. But for my mom, it’s a defense mechanism. The world is out to get her.
My mom tried her hand at cooking once. She cut a head of lettuce in half, drizzled dressing on it, and called it a salad. She really can’t cook, but she loves good food. We’ve scoured all niches of the D.C. metropolitan area for good eats and delicacies. We love the duck at this upstairs restaurant in Chevy Chase. We hate the cold chicken at this new place in town. We call ourselves culinary connoisseurs.
When I was younger and we lived in an apartment in the wrong part of the city, my mom had an angry streak. She found satisfaction in throwing and destroying things. Pillows, clothes, books. I would have trouble discerning between the sound of her throwing furniture and the sound of the washing machine. Anger gets the best of us. But anger is hurt in disguise.
My mom is a second child, in all senses of the word. Growing up, she was always the child left on the playground, the wild one, running free and losing track of time under no one’s watch. As the younger one of two children, it was obvious the parental investment was greater in her sister. But as her parents aged, she earned their affection. She stayed when her sister left and never looked back.
Our go-to vacation spot is Hawaii, my mom and I. The islands are lush and tropical, and the only pain is from sunburn. The island of Oahu has this unmatched spirit, and everything smells like gardenias and tuberoses. The island of Kauai is secluded and laid back. We drive along the coast until we run out of gas. But we’re also naive. Don’t we know heartache is just as painful in Hawaii?
My mom will keep the same haircut for a decade if she decides it looks good. She will wear the same lipstick color every day if someone compliments her once on it. Change, big or small, is moving mountains for her. She gets into habits that she can’t break. And when there is unwarranted change, she never sees it coming.
Gone with the Wind is one of her favorite movies. She loves the green dress on Scarlett, the red of fire. She loves old movies, for their charm, their elegance. War movies are some of her favorites. I’ve never quite understood why she likes the somber scenes of nations being torn apart, the frightened characters, the greyness. It makes me feel so cold, but she’s entrenched in the drama unfolding in war-torn cinema.
Sometimes I catch her fast asleep on the couch with our dog, Sawyer. They both snore, and they both choose the couch over the bed. Sawyer always runs off in the middle of the night to find reprieve from my mom’s stifling cuddles, but he always returns the next night. Sometimes I wonder if my mom could sleep without Sawyer.
My mom shudders at the thought of feelings. I once read her a letter I wrote for her, telling her my apologies for being an angsty teenager, my appreciation for her as a mother, and my love as a daughter. But she put on this stern shell, as if she was afraid of her own reaction. She doesn’t ever show her vulnerable side.
She’s forever stuck in the twentieth century. She likes everything old school. She fears everything. New York subways have her looking in all directions at any given moment. Paying with credit card gives her cold sweats. “I smell marijuana!” she said, standing on the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Sixteenth Street, with a tone that exuded less shock than it aroused. Twentieth-century China didn’t have weed.
She’s an animal lover. She loves animals more than she does people. She looks in their eyes and finds compassion. Sea turtles look incredibly majestic to her. She’ll get into a playful fight with kittens. She’s never startled by the bark of a dog. Monkeys, giraffes, lemurs—they all conjure personas in her mind.
Sometimes I wonder if people have disappointed her too much. I wonder if people have gotten the best of her, and left her to fend for herself. Sometimes I feel the weight of the world and want to take on a cynical look to shield myself from the hurt of trusting in one too many people, but something always stops me. I always go back to what hurts me. But my mom never does. She’s the opposite of lighthearted.
Just one sip of wine makes her crazy. Red wine is her weakness. She had a single beer one year on New Year’s Eve, and she couldn’t wake up for work the next morning. But I don’t think the effects of alcohol are magnified on her; I think she just needs something to blame. Alcohol’s everyone’s favorite scapegoat.
My mom had a college roommate who had terrible insomnia, and instead of sleeping, she wrote down what my mom said while sleep talking. Her roommate never showed her what she wrote, and my mom found it intrusive and quite frankly creepy, but I would be fascinated by what the notes say. I’ve only heard my mom talk in her sleep a handful of times, and none of those times have revealed anything unexpected.
When I went on my first date when I was thirteen, my mom followed me into the movies. “I’ll sit far away from you guys,” she said. My then boyfriend didn’t seem bothered at all, but I was a little bit flustered, to say the least. Back then, movie dates with a boy were cool. Getting dropped off in front of the theaters was cool. But having your mom chaperone you was definitely not cool.
I don’t know if I ever grew out of my teenage angst. I lost the need to be “cool,” but I never shed the need to run. I used to run away from our apartment by hiding in the communal laundry room. I tried to drive away as soon as I could legally drive. But I kept coming back. All roads led me home. Sometimes being at home hurt a lot but it was better than hurting away from home.
My mom doesn’t understand why I would miss someone when it strains my heart so much. But she knows what it’s like to miss home. When I moved to New York, she understood why suburbia seemed so comfortable, so familiar. A couple hundred miles wasn’t too far on a map, but I felt so far in my heart. And that was the one thing she understood. It was seemingly trivial, and if anything, a phase of growing up that everyone was bound to go through. But she understood.
New York never really appealed to my mom. She didn’t like the litter-lined streets; she didn’t like the smell of cigarettes or the streetside squatters. The subway was too unhygienic for her liking. But a few years ago, I fell in love with the city. It was before I moved here, before I knew the real New York. I was madly in love with the electricity that ran through the city. I felt ambition in my veins.
My mom questions why I moved to the city. When I told her I was homesick, she was quick to say “I told you so.” She didn’t understand my blind optimism, my big city dreams. I began thinking it was the city that was stifling, the lack of legroom that was making me restless. Maybe it was New York that broke my heart.
But I became a New Yorker. And I find my mom there more and more, even though she says she can’t stand the traffic or the people. I learned subway lingo. I picked up my walking pace. I adjusted to the concrete surroundings. I found repose in gazing over the Hudson from the west side of Manhattan.
When my mom drove up to New York to take me home for Thanksgiving, she made a left turn at Union Square and got pulled over. Cars were furiously honking behind her as she tried to maneuver to the side of the busy intersection. The police officer, without hesitation, wrote her a ticket. My mom was livid. The tension on the drive home was immense. Breaking the silence, she said: “I would’ve gotten off with a warning if my shirt was lower cut.”
“There’s a dull ache in my heart,” I tell my mom, in the beginning of a cold New York Winter. Holiday lights illuminated the streets, reflecting off the melted snow. The hopeless romantics shuffled down pavement. We’re all hopeless romantics in New York City. Who doesn’t yearn for love when the only warmth is in the masses? The concrete jungle is terrifyingly cold without New Yorkers.
“I will pick you up tomorrow in the morning. Get all your stuff together,” she said. She never fails to whisk me away for reprieve. She’s a suburbanite at heart. The city’s too loud, too much for her. She knows I love New York deep down, like all New Yorkers. But she also knows when I just need to go home.