Grandpa died suddenly, but not unexpectedly. Overnight, mom had no more reason to stick around Mesa. Yet she never really found a good enough reason to leave. The only real difference with her was that after the funeral she couldn’t blame wasting her life in Arizona on her father’s health. She cried with me when we heard the news. And she cried every time a friend or relative rang in to offer their condolences. I had to comfort her. I’ve had to fill that role ever since my father left. Well, ever since she kicked him out. I was surprised when she fought for custody. I would have thought she’d be glad to let me go with him. Then she’d be free. I’m sure that’s crossed her mind: with her dad out of the way she would have total freedom, if only I were gone. She just couldn’t let my father win.
So I was stuck – seventeen years old, starting my senior year of high school in a week – holding this woman together. Emotional preservation had never been so f***ed up. She burst into tears doing the simplest things. I got to finish the dishes every night. There was just some connection between household chores and grandpa that kept my mom from doing anything but weep. Of course she found respite in going on lunch dates with the girls and watching the news at night. Running up charges on dad’s accounts seemed to be her only escape... But I knew she was crying more about her own life than my grandpa’s death. There was simply not enough heart in the woman to be bleeding over anything else.
I finished mowing the lawns about an hour before dusk. I could have waited until twilight and go out when it was cool. But I made it a point to be done with work before dark. That wasn’t too hard this year; zeroscaping had really caught on in the neighborhood. Still, I held sunset in reverence. No one should be working while purple hues rim the mountaintops and rays of fire shoot into the wispy clouds. No? Well, I made a point every evening of watching the sun sink into the west. How I wish I could follow it! To California. To the sea. Anywhere, really... Even crossing town to stay with my cousins or my dad would be enough.
I just stood on the cement steps of my family’s porch. No... My mom’s porch. I stood there with greasy hands, sweat-drenched clothes, and a general smell of body odor and gasoline. My blonde-tipped mousy hair still dripped with moisture. And the geyser above my forehead had only just ceased its torrent. As the burning orb fell, leaving the sky a stratified color-wheel, I turned to go inside. Stripping off my clothes as I marched up the stairs came naturally to me, as did everything else which took me from the world outside to my deep, claw-foot bathtub. I threw my tee and jeans into the hamper in the upstairs hallway. Laundry, quite happily, was one of the only chores mom could bring herself to do... in her grief. I saved my boxers for the bathroom itself. I couldn’t do the showers at school. Nor could I walk free in my own house. I always had that small part of myself that I felt I needed to hide.
Only after closing the bathroom door, locking it, and turning on the fan did I feel at ease with my naked skin. I peeled off the last article... A glance in the mirror and I wasn’t impressed. But I did giggle... Mostly at the farmer’s tan that covered my face, neck and arms. The shaded darkness was composed mostly of filth, cemented on by a glue of dried perspiration. It would wash off with some scrubbing and become uniform with the pale and flabby everything else.
I held up one arm and then the other. There was some meat on the bone... but unless I flexed, it looked just as pathetic as my pectorals, abdominals and obliques. I stuck my tongue out at my reflection. I needed to get washed! I could smell myself now that I was standing in an enclosed space. Turning on the faucet for my beautifully spacious tub, I dressed it with some aromatics and salt. I had seven minutes to shower and scourge my body of soil and grime. I would then soak until dinner... another effort my blessed mother so graciously maintained during her time of bitterness.
I watched black streams run down the shower drain. Darkened cumulus followed as I lathered soap onto my sponge and raked it across my skin. Finally the layers were stripped and I felt my linen-white pores scream in relief with religious fervor. Closing the tap, I stepped out onto the rug. Then I gripped the side of the tub and swung a leg over, into the near-scalding liquid therapy. I lowered myself down, wincing as more sensitive areas were overcome by the tide of warmth. Finally I was resting on the bottom of my porcelain savior. I turned off the tap and sat, letting the salts and oils work away like a masseuse. Sooner than I had wished, a sharp knock came at the door.
“Hun,” came the beckoning tone. “I’ve got dinner going. It’ll be ready in ten.”
“Thanks!” I replied. Her tone sounded appealing through the door. Maybe it was the serenity of the bath. Maybe I was just tired. But it was times like these when I almost forgave mom for the divorce, for staying where she wasn’t happy, for all of it. I bent my knees and sank beneath the water. My hair was just long enough that I could entertain myself by swishing it around under the water. I ran my fingers through it, feeling it rise and fall in the heavy medium as though it were weightless, as though there were no gravity. I wondered what it would be like if I could be so unburdened. I came up for air and decided – for tonight – I would continue to carry my mother’s burden. I would continue to shoulder my own.