“Mother,” J.J. says, as she stretches her arms to the woman standing before her. The woman wears a lacy turquoise dress, a thinly woven shawl, and an excited grin, which is a surprise to them both. And now her arms cut through the air toward her daughter. “J.J.,” she says, “My baby girl.” Her suitcase bounces against the soft skin of J.J.’s backside.
Their bodies press together a redundancy of secrets. Each body bearing a secret, one in the belly, the other in the breast. One secret wonderful, the other awful, and each woman already having decided to swallow her own mystery like a pill.
J.J.’s mother carries a blue beaded purse in which she keeps the following objects: A comb, a book of matches, a drivers license and credit card (full name: Crystal Benjamin Heigi.) A lipstick, a pearl bobby pin, cigarettes, mints, a perfume sample, a pair of earrings, a bottle of clear nail polish, a 4 pack of Tylenol, and one old photograph torn from a magazine. In the photograph, Crystal is a young girl. She wears red lipstick, black gloves, and a black hat.
Once upon a time, my mother was a high fashion model. She was on the cover of Seventeen. She rode in a white limo, but she was not allowed to turn on the television or roll down the windows. She had a steady paycheck and she was so young and beautiful. Too beautiful, so much so that she could be cavalier about the men in her life. She could use them and discard them like smoked cigarettes. This is the reason I don’t have a father. She was too young, too beautiful, so careless. “You’re lucky, J.J.,” she told me once when I was eleven. “You aren’t going to be beautiful like I was.”
Weeks ago, they decided to take a vacation together, mother and daughter on the open road. Their meeting place is Vancouver, Canada. J.J. has driven up from Seattle. She meets her mother at the train station. Crystal arrives by train from Chicago. She was happily willing to come this far so she could spend time with her lovely daughter, her baby girl, the one who once forced her way intruding and unwelcome from her womb. She looks at her daughter now as though it were in fact a dancing star she once gave birth to, not curses, blood, and nearly a lifetime of regret.
Two women, one tall and graceful in diamond earrings and an antique dress. The younger one smaller, freckled, with brown hair (that flips out at the ends) and sunburned cheeks. This one takes the other by the hand and leads her to where her yellow Volkswagen is parked. Glass secrets bubble inside them both and they long to tell, to open their mouths and let words fall out and drop to the floor and shatter only to be picked up by the other, placed inside a kaleidoscope and viewed with acceptance and understanding, but secrets are meant to be kept.
Crystal remembers a cartoon she once watched with J.J. about fleas who roasted marshmallows above a campfire on a dog’s back. They thought the dog’s hairs were forest trees. This is how Crystal pictures the cancer in her body, throwing parties, drinking champagne. Playing chicken in tiny cars that are her very cells. The doctor had wanted to remove the breast immediately. Instead Crystal called her daughter J.J. on her cell phone. “I feel like doing something crazy,” she said. “I feel like taking a trip. Where do you want to go? I’ll meet you there, and I’ll pay for the whole entire thing.”
When J.J. was a child she desired baby dolls that burped and wet their diapers. She liked the ones especially that wore pink dresses and pigtails and made crying sounds when you squeezed them. Crystal bought her daughter books and paintings for the walls. Children’s stories and children’s poems and books for older girls and grownups. The bedroom filled with books and bookshelves. The only dolls were ones that were characters from books. J.J. was allowed, for instance, to own a Christopher Robin, a Raggedy Ann and Andy. But babies and baby dolls were taboo. At one point, Crystal even reminded J.J. of what happened with the baby doll in Poltergeist.
“No woman needs babies,” Crystal told her daughter. “Babies are so needy and messy, they cry all the time, they ruin any career you might once have had. You don’t need baby dolls, Jellybean. What you need is a good mind, a good education.” It was never any secret that J.J. was a mistake.
The hotel they check into is on Richards Street. Three flights up, plush carpets, two separate rooms. Crystal places her suitcase on the counter and looks at her reflection in the mirror. J.J. tosses her knapsack on the floor beside the closet. Then, curious about the closet, she opens the door and finds a pillow inside. She takes the pillow and tosses it onto her bed. She goes into the hall to meet her mother.
Crystal splashes water on her face. She wonders, How did I get so old? Cancer wasn’t supposed to happen to beautiful people like herself. It happened to the weak ones, the ones begging for it in their sleep, Please release me from this sorry life of cooking meals and cleaning floors! It did not happen to the ones who smelled of lilacs, the ones who crept downstairs in the night to sip coffee from a tea cup, and paint pictures of a woman riding a circus horse, white, on one foot.
J.J. carries a guidebook in her army bag. She has highlighted the best places to go for lunch, for shopping. She leads her mother down Water Street to Gastown. She and her mother both like walking. Together, they have walked the cities of the world: New York, Atlanta, Paris and Milan. But today J.J. is so dreadfully tired. She thinks of the bed in her hotel room, that extra pillow so haphazardly thrown now calls to her like a lover, like a child. She longs to return to the room, curl up with that pillow, and sleep while the embryo dances inside her, free to suck at her energy, to drain her of alertness, of fear. This is how mountain climbers must feel, she thinks, repeatedly supporting herself with this mantra: one foot in front of the other, now repeat, and repeat, and eventually it will be nighttime and you can sleep.
They speak of other things.
“What are you reading?” Crystal wants to know. She doesn’t like that her daughter reads books about mountains, Annapurna, McKinley, Kilimanjaro.
“Plath,” J.J. mumbles under her breath.
“Plath was a weakling,” her mother replies.
In a store with green walls selling bottles of lotion and robes, each woman finds an object that speaks to her own secret. For J.J. it is a bar of soap, with a rubber ducky held prisoner inside. The ducky looks out with a black eye through the glycerin, through the sheaf of plastic wrap, waits to be set free. J.J. finds the soap on a white table beside a stack of wash cloths, next to which sit a baby rattle, baby shoes, and a tiny baby’s robe. On the other side of the store, Crystal fingers a bra. It is a 32 b, and it is held by hooks from a satin covered hanger. She touches the left cup, and feels a sensation in her own breast. She nearly cries out–these, the mysteries of fine cotton.
These things continue to follow them through the streets of Vancouver. There is a deflating balloon, red and wrinkled, bouncing along near the water in the wind. There is decay in the city, the alleyways ripped apart by old age and neglect, buildings crumbling, the downtown area gray. The homeless are out, sick, dying. That evening, when Crystal finds mold in the shower, she begins to cry. She rifles through her pink makeup bag for the razor, breaks it, and scrapes mercilessly at the mold.
The next morning they drive over the bridge to North Vancouver. J.J. drives her yellow Volkswagen like a video game, fast, faster, weaving in and out of traffic, and cutting off a man in a Tacoma Truck. “Please stop this,” her mother wants to say. “This is completely unnecessary–death will come soon enough.” Instead she grabs her blue beaded bag and focuses on her feet, willing them to stop tapping at imaginary breaks.
Crystal thinks: I should never have let it come to this. This silence, this sadness. I suppose I am the one who brought you to this, this apparent longing to disappear, to climb to the tops of mountains in the snow. If I could, I would go back in time and do everything different. If I could, I would wrap you in my arms, place you upon my lap. Put you once again to my breast, feed you silver and gold threads from my body to yours.
Instead of this, Crystal sat on the porch of her parents’ house on a rare rainy Saturday in July. She held her newborn baby to her breast, the way they showed her to do at the hospital. She felt the milk, her marrow, her soul, travel away from her body and into the mouth of this greedy thing she held on a pillow in her lap. She placed one palm against the belly of the baby, separating the tiny warm body from her own. She still could not believe she had given birth to this thing, for women like her did not have babies. Women like her climbed down fire escapes to greet their lovers on the sidewalks of New York. They held champagne flutes in penthouses and said, “Oh, isn’t it just divine?” They hooded their eyes in a sleepy way and stretched their long dark bodies beneath Egyptian cotton sheets, rejecting hungry males, driving them to jump from windows or drown themselves in lakes. Once this body, this face, had been on the cover of magazines, red lipstick, black gloves, a black hat. Now it sat on an iron bench, fat dripping from the middle, hanging loose enough to touch the tops of legs which once had been tan.
The Bed and Breakfast is in Deep Cove, North Vancouver. A woman shows Crystal and J.J. to their room; she is brisk and nervous in a way that is soothing. It is as though all the bad energy, all the fear and discomfort between J.J. and her mother are gathered up in a ball and swallowed whole by this woman in a polyester pantsuit. J.J. and Crystal are allies, momentarily. The woman brandishes a map, highlighting routes to the beach, to the suspended bridge, to the cinema. Then she hurries out of the room, giggling, wishing the women a wonderful stay, and she drops the ball of energy into the umbrella stand by the door. The moment the door closes behind her, the energy ball bounces across the room and returns like a tail wagging dog to its owners.
“Well,” Crystal says, “We could try the beach I suppose.” What she really wants is to know precisely how many days she has left to live. She wants to take a pen and write out an itinerary–to ensure she has at least three great adventures every day, every day for the rest of her life.
“Sure,” says J.J., who wants only to sleep.
Morning sickness hits full force. It is five in the afternoon.
“I think I’d better eat something,” J.J. admits.
They order a pizza and eat it with Cokes, sitting against a stone bench.
“I love the ocean,” Crystal says. “I love the river, I love the lake.”
“I love the stream,” J.J. replies, deciding to join in their old game. “I love the puddle I love the gutter.”
“I love the gutter I love the dam.”
“I love the mountains,” J.J. says.
The crashing of waves white noise in their ears.
In spite of, or maybe because of her mother’s warnings, J.J. has always wanted to have kids. Yes, she is aware that a baby can ruin a life, can cast a spell of weakness over a woman once brilliant and successful. But J.J. has never had success in that sense, and she isn’t even sure she ever wants it. She has also seen how that kind of success can ruin a person, can make her greedy, single-minded and mean. Sometimes, J.J.’s mind almost lets her believe that maybe it isn’t all her fault, that maybe her mother was already ruined before she came along. That perhaps her mother tasted too much glitter too young, and that maybe the baby (J.J. herself) had been what saved her. But these are just the thoughts that pass like trajectories along the side of J.J.’s mind, never penetrating, always fleeting. They whiz against her brain like shooting stars, but are gone before she can even mutter, “oh!”
There are golden skinned children reading magazines at the beach. Girls, pulling sodas and sandwiches from a cooler, rubbing sunscreen on their long and skinny legs. J.J. watches and suddenly she knows that the tiny baby inside her is a girl. The golden children glow like skinny sunsets on the beach. J.J. smiles and touches her belly with the palm of her hand–the future so full of new beginnings, ossibility and change. When Crystal looks at the girls on their beach towels, she wishes she had it all to do again.
But she isn’t thinking about motherhood, which was lonely. And dark. No, those vain and unconcerned children are about the age that Crystal was when her own future had looked so full of possibility. There were the fashion shows and the makeovers at Macys. She was 13, her mother bought her bubblegum lipstick and a long sleeved pink nightgown. Still ahead were the modeling agencies, the contracts, the white limousine. She read Vogue in her attic bedroom with the queen sized cherry framed bed and yellow sheets, she read Cosmopolitan, thick piles of magazines in stacks beneath the window, pages torn and beautiful women in thick red belts taped to her walls with masking tape. How she longs to return to those days.
After the lumpectomy, she was told the entire breast would need to be removed. She was told the lump they’d taken had been larger than what they’d thought was cancerous, that they didn’t get clean margins, but then she had stopped listening. She didn’t want to hear about how sick she was, or how her body had failed her in the end. She wanted to be that young girl again, on the cover of Seventeen. She could still paint her lips red, could make men love her and buy her fancy perfumes, but for the first time, when she looked at her reflection in the pearl-framed glass mirror, she found she couldn’t care less.
They take the ferry to Vancouver Island, and in Victoria, Crystal begins to panic. Her left breast stabbing her from sleep. A fever beginning to crawl across her neck, a necklace of ice cubes, a ghostly centipede. She thinks, “This is it, I am dying.” After midnight, she slips through the door, J.J.’s stolen car keys pressed against the cigarettes in her blue beaded purse, and she drives herself to the hospital. “I’m dying,” she tells them when they ask.
But Crystal is not dying. Not immediately, not today. Perhaps her body will even beat the cancer on its own. But for now the wound from the lumpectomy is infected. The doctor is concerned. “You really need to accept this,” he tells her. “You need to take care of yourself.”
No secrets are revealed. Secrets are meant to be kept. At the hotel that night, J.J. takes care of her mother, who sleeps. There are explanations and lies, but there is also care and concern. J.J. touches her mother’s skin. She brushes her mother’s hair. She brings her ice water, she brings her a mirror circled by a chain of glass beads. She sits at the edge of the bed and smiles, she rubs her mother’s hand. This is how she knows she will be good with her own daughter.
She must have been so lovely, my mother, when she was young. Even now, worked by a fever, her hair in clumps tangled from sweat, she is beautiful. But not the way she wants it. Her skin now is paper thin and pale, it’s skin that looks like porcelain on the young, but begins to crinkle in its delicacy with age. I know about the torn photograph of herself she keeps in her purse. I know by heart her litany of regrets, and I know that I continue to be the core of her resentment. But she needs me, whether she knows it or not. Without me, she could not survive.
On the last day of their trip, J.J. drives them to Butchard Gardens, where they climb to the top of a hill and look down on a field of manicured roses. J.J. knows that soon she will be big, and then her secret will be revealed. She knows that Crystal will not approve, cannot imagine Crystal a grandmother. But today she sheds a bit of resentment and turns to embrace her mother. Belly to belly, breast to breast, their bodies pressed together like two opposing pages of the same magazine. J.J. tears her own page from this magazine and memorizes it.