I became a mother long before I gave birth.
Curses ran through our city of Pavia like viruses hyped on speed, trains bounding beyond the velocity of their tracks, motorcycles revving in quiet jungles. Curses and rumors. At the end of the talk, the whispers, the what-have-yous, and the have you heards? was my mother’s name. Pierina. Later, among all of this medieval wonder and despair, it would be my name.
“Mamma,” I called out one night. I was puckered into a ball, trying to find warmth, trying to make myself small enough so that my wrists became my ankles, my feet became my hands. I thought of Jesus, crucified, spread wide, throwing himself towards an unkind world. I will be the opposite, I said to myself. I will make myself as small as possible. I will disappear into the ether, where no one will disappoint.
“Topolino, topolino,” my mother said. My little mouse. Her voice wavered. High, low, from the floor of a prison cell to a field of grapes in high sunshine, back again. She was, without warning, a figure in the doorway, her hair loose, tangled, and dirty and red as a robin’s feathers.
“Here,” I said, from under the cover of a thin blanket. I raised my legs until I could taste the downy hair on my kneecaps. “I am here.”
She stumbled past me, towards the window, from which there wasn’t a whole lot to see. In her wake: the perfume of shelled peanuts, spilled beer, and smoky rooms, cards torn at the edges. The ink of newspapers three days old.
“You keep telling me that,” she said to the outside world of glum, our battlefields of snow in Northern Italy. “You keep telling me that.”
“What, Mamma?” I asked, and my voice was young; it was younger than the newspapers. “Who are you talking to?”
She considered me, wobbled on an unsure leg. “I play. I play and I play until I can’t play any longer.”
She was disappearing on me fast. She was backstage noise, static from blown-out speakers. “What are you saying?” I asked. Before I could catch my breath, I was out of the ramshackle bed. I was on my feet. I was beside her, and her hands were in my hands. They were weak, bony, skeletons of an extinct bird scientists have long forgotten the name of.
“Why don’t you come to bed?” I said. I was 12 years old. The world was not an oyster. The world was not a shell. The world was not a pearl, waiting to be found. It was this: the bones of my mother’s fingers crushing against mine as she cursed. It was the fake gold ring I kept on my left pinky, to turn and twist, just to feel blood, touch, memory of a more affectionate past that may or may not have existed in this small lifetime of mine.
My mother pulled a card from the depths of her handbag. An ace. Diamonds; black.
“A full house,” she said, wishing on casinos, promises from twisted mouths, heads of greasy hair thrashing between her fingers, as I unwrapped her from her addictions. The cigarette: drowned in the sink. The bottle of bad whiskey: likewise. Her shoulders were rigid thin, that of a sparrow’s, as I undressed her, tucked her into a sweater worn by my grandmother, and her grandmother, and a great aunt before that. My mother flayed against the mattress tattooed with burn marks, all of her worn out from abuse, neglect, life.
“Topolino,” she said; she cried. “Topolino, I cannot find my cigarettes. I cannot find a match to make the world bright again.” She fumbled with the scarecrow’s clothes besides the bed, spanked pockets worn dire-thin from use. Matchboxes littered the floor. One by one, she tried this one, that. “There is a rainstorm above me,” she said, and this was my cue: this was when I knew she had slipped into the philosophy of the slipshod drunk. She was the lady on the corner at daybreak, begging for a lira. She was the bald and beaten up in the emergency room. “It won’t stop raining, and this match will never light.”
She bent over, grasping for matches on the dirty floor. My mother was my soul mate, my sympatico, my beauty, my nemesis, my worry, my life. I hated her and I loved her, in equal measure. She was sugar, salt, cyanide.
“You are here for a reason,” she said, and rocked back against desiccated heels, tarnished by the sun and cheap shoes and walking the streets of Pavia, looking for an open bar, a poker game in need of an extra player. “You were meant to be.”
I crawled against her, held her to me until all I could taste was the mother I once knew in her. She was never pancakes, maple, coconut; she, my beautiful mother, was the taste of a pulse worn thin, a square of stale bread at Communion, burnt coffee, an oxidized razorblade.
She pointed vaguely towards the floor, her arms abrupt. “I . . .” she started, but I didn’t let her finish. I clung to her, a starfish. I closed her eyes with the palm of my hand.
“Tomorrow,” she said, and her voice caught on a dream as she drifted towards prettier shores. “Tomorrow, I’ll be better. I promise, my Lauretta. I promise.”
Tomorrow arrived; the shore was uglier. I was complicit in Pierina’s addictions, even if I didn’t know it at the time. I was her accomplice, in tattered shoes as I ran down the boulevard to the farmacia to refill bottles of pills that she took some days by the handful. Pills that made her ill to her stomach. Pills that made her pull at her hair and take tweezers to her eyebrows. Pills that kept her up at all hours, or gone for days at a time.
Years of tomorrows came, went, disappeared in the rearview mirror as I went from Pavia to Florence to Milan to California. Still, my mother withered — she, the fragile, stranded bird of Pavia with an injured wing. Keeping her from flight.
I am a mother myself now. My daughter is 20. She has a smile that could win over whole nations, gorgeous skin, a hungry mind. Her spirit is old and gentle and wise. Of this I am proud.
When she left for college, a part of me shut down. A part of me slivered; another disappeared completely. I cried every time someone asked me how I was doing, I cried every time I walked into a grocery store and noted that my list was only half as long, I cried when I saw her half-empty box of cereal in the pantry, I cried when I walked past the photo I’d taken of her on the beach in Mexico when she was five — the sun in her salt-curly hair, her enormous, toothy grin, sand on the tip of her upturned nose. I cried when our waiter at our favorite Italian café down the street got my order wrong, when I received a parking ticket, when we were out of milk. When the sun was too hot and the rain was too cold and the wind was too goddamned windy.
I have no one else to mother now but myself, and it is a cavernous thing. Still, I march on. I soldier past the saloon on the sodden streets of San Francisco, where if I look into the windows long enough, I see myself in delicate silhouette. A child, no more than four, on a barstool. Paul Anka is playing in the background, just under the rhythm of cards shuffled and dealt at a table in the back where the laughter is bitter and my mother’s hair is damp at her scalp and a cigarette hangs loosely from lips painted a glorious, fading red. She is on her last glass, her last hand, as I wait. As I wait, seeing gold. It’s a bridge in another land, and I am walking across it, a toddler on my hip, fog on her skin. As I wait, knowing one day I’ll become something else entirely. I’ll pull this child closer to my heart. I’ll put her hair in braids.