This is a story about domestic and sexual violence and inherited trauma and female subjecthood but really it is about gravity and breath and blood and the ocean and mostly it is about my mother—my un-story-able mother who refuses to live inside well-behaved prose. My leaky undulating mother. I have carried my mother-story across decades from paragraphs to fragments to scribbled shapes left in journals and on walls and on my own skin; I have painted on old photographs of her; I have made cut-ups from print outs of our text conversations; I have written her name on stones I collected at the beach and laid on the floor of my room and placed the stones on my body and waited for the language to rise; I have swum in the ocean thousands of miles from the one she grew up in and tried to feel all the stories curling around the waves; all the mothers and daughters and coastlines and floods; I have stared at my mother across dinner tables and hospital beds and watched the architecture of her body become more and more diaphanous. I suppose what I am trying to say is that I do not know how to find or say the things I think I need to find and say about her. And so mostly I read other things other people have said about other bodies. I read and read and read and find, in other people’s stories, bits to stand on, things to place under my pillow, language that sputters and scorches and crackles, but I have not yet found my mother.
I am not sure if I have said enough. I could say other sentences like: my father raped and beat my mother. Or: my mother is dying from progressive nerve degeneration. Or: my mother has tiny wrists and brown eyes. And I wonder yet if this is narrative.
The first time I swam in the Pacific Ocean I was twenty-eight years old. I told myself it was a secular baptism, a ritual, permission to begin what would be a new phase of my life states away from the Midwest which had held me in quiet and comfort for years, never more than a few hours drive from my mother’s ailing body. I stood at the lip of the water, mere yards from my new home and counted the slow metronomic beat of cresting waves, my feet making shoes of wet sand in the shallows. When I entered the water, it was a bursting of breath and limbs as I lurched furious further and further out despite the piercing cold despite the salt coating the back of my throat despite the vast flat lonely blue of the sky. And when I could no longer feel the sand beneath my feet and yielded to the lolling current my body loose and held in all that blue, I cried the tears of a daughter who knew one day she would be motherless.
In 1979, under the promise of easy money, my nineteen-year-old mother followed her older sister from the familiar embrace of the Nova Scotia coast to the barren stretched out terrain of the Northwest Territories. She invited a man she hardly knew (the man who would become my father) to go with her to a town whose population barely exceeded a couple hundred people. My father worked a dangerous job as a rig hand on a supply ship for a massive oil tanker operated by Dome Petroleum off the coast of Tuktoyaktuk. Two men died on that rig during my parents’ first summer there. My mother spent her days in the copilot seat of a modified decommissioned military helicopter with a glass floor looking for signs of forest fires in the arctic wilderness bordering the Beaufort Sea. The pilot, Jerry, regaled her of the horrors he’d seen in Vietnam; his wounds were fresh and his trauma eked out in dangerous flight patterns as he grazed ravine walls and smiled at my mother’s pretty face and thin young body. At night, my mother waited tables at the bar in the Mackenzie Hotel.
She carried cases of beer from back room to table, swapped sarcasm for grubby hands on her body, and made more money than she had seen in all her life. When her shift ended, she would heave my father’s stumbling frame from the bar to their little shared room and then walk the five hundred yards to the beach’s rocky ledge at the top of the world and listen to the currents rolling in through the Bering Strait. Water moving cold and fast and north from the edges of California. Water becoming Arctic. It scared her. She never swam. But she placed the tips of her fingers in the icy wet and her sloughed cells rode the tide out and away.
It’s 3 o’clock in the morning and I am leaned against the east wall of my bedroom swirling what’s left of the wine around the inside rim of the bottle I’ve been drinking from. I wrap my tongue around the soft corners of the french sounds from the French song coming from my speakers and wait for the woman in my bed to speak. Her eyes are blue and slick with the hazy wet of too much alcohol and she peers hard at my moving wrist when she says “come here,” the scent of me still dripping from her lips and it seems to me from inside my own lilt of booze that what she is actually saying is “this is the story of your body.”
My phone vibrates next to me, the pulsating movement almost swallowed by the blanket, and I catch the shape of the letters, which make a fast angry twinge in the pit of my stomach, but the woman in my bed speaks again, this time softer, this time reaching towards me with her thin fingers flicking, and I haven’t eaten in three days and the air in the room buzzes from the hunger and the wine and the Adderrall I took and the text message on my phone and every cell of the woman’s skin wrenches at the air between us her dimpled cheek so supple her mouth moving again around the words “Come here” and her eyes couldn’t be bluer that blue the same blue as my ex-wife’s eyes that blue the only blue I could ever love.
Earlier when I stripped my clothes off she had told me she liked my bra told me she’d been waiting to see my undressed body. “You’re so hot” she had said like a teenage boy and it made me so hungry for her so willing to be nothing but skin and bones.
And my phone vibrates again and I wonder if I should tell the woman in my bed about the words flashing black next to me or the mother on the other side of the screen who typed them but instead I place the bottle on the floor and crawl shivering and naked towards her mouth which falls on me, hot and salty.
In my head I think about the words I might say to the woman in my bed and the words are something like: A fact about my mother is that sometimes which means more than one time she threatens to kill herself. So there is the task of waiting to see if she will make words into deed. When this happens, you cannot leave the perimeter of the house. You can pace in circles or do circular things like knitting or like knitting your human body into a knot. You can say circular things like how you love her and need her and how you cannot love or need a body that is dead. You can cross the space that separates you from her rage but you cannot close it. You can wear empathy but not pity. You can count the knives in the knife block you can check the dishwasher for the ones that are missing. You can imagine what it would be like to touch her cheek you can imagine what it would be like to braid her hair, the coarse strands folding and folding. You can wait. For her to stir. To sigh. To sleep.
But I do not say these words to the woman in my bed, the blue-eyed woman who is now panting and sweating in the heat of my room our skinny muscled bodies moving rhythmically tongue buried between legs hands pressing against and over nipples my mouth seeking hers again and again drunk in the smell of her body acrid skin so smooth and soft and everywhere pressing to me but everywhere the spaces between us everywhere the atoms.
On the floor my phone blinks at me while the mother on the other end threatens something like death and in my bed I come again and again.
In the shower I turn the water up to scalding. I crouch on the floor with my arms wrapped around my knees. I let the water beat my back red until I hear the woman in my bed dress and leave.
The night has become the morning and the woman in my bed is no longer in my bed but I can still smell her and I open the book by my pillow and read the highlighted sentence again. Who is responsible for the suffering of your mother? And I know this question and I know this poet and I remember her seated at a large wooden desk in the stale air of an empty classroom, eyes blinking at me in the wake of this question. The way I gathered my swollen tongue and rose to leave. I remember her accent, smooth and rounded like my mother’s isn’t, I remember how she never seemed to mind when loose wisps of hair quivered against her eyelashes. I remember how I wanted to lay my teeth against the pulsing curve of her tanned neck, how I thought maybe I loved her. And I read the question again, let it split the back of my throat open, wait for the warm wet to seep out.
Through the window I hear my neighbor’s kid ring his bike bell and I think about the man in the bike shop who told me my brake was stiff because of the design of my woman’s bike and how I had suddenly felt so very queer and almost motherless glaring at his shiny wet bald head while he traced the curve of my brake cord with his fat finger and I thought I could fuck him and I thought he should be so lucky and I thought about saying it out loud but instead I paid him $50 to fix the cord and then gave my baby blue bike away to a friend and decided to get a tattoo, but I’ll never get a tattoo because my mother is a dermatologist and also because there’s something supercilious about pure skin, which is a sentence my mother said to me once, and I like that word supercilious, but all of this is a lie. The tattoo on my wrist made my mother cry.
The smell of the woman in my bed is fading and I’m writing a story about my mother in my journal.
The story has three parts.
Part 1. My mother sits on the edge of her bed and grasps my wrists, my blood pumping against her smooth palms. The sunlight bleeds into the room through the blinds. She is telling me about her brother. Not like a confession, just the simple fact of his teenage fingers on her child body. Our neighbor cleans his concrete deck with a high-pressure garden hose. The water smacking. My mother’s voice lilting and in my mind her small form. The moonlight filtering through the geraniums on her windowsill. The blue blanket at the foot of her bed. The way sleep became a threat. My uncle’s tiny wrists so like hers. So like mine. These are the facts.
Part 2. When I was 7, my mother sent me to spend the weekend at her brother’s house. I slept in the hammock on the porch and the sounds I heard they were raccoons, so many raccoons, in the yard, on the roof, and the raccoons sounded like footsteps on hardwood and the raccoons sounded like my cousin Katie whimpering, and the raccoons were rummaging, all night, and long after.
Part 3. Dear Mother,
Did you know the universal sign for choking is self-strangulation? We share this language of gasping for air. Maybe I got this tattoo on my wrist so I could tell us apart, mother. So I could figure out whose hands those are around my neck.
The woman who is no longer in my bed texts me a photo of her blue eyes. I scroll down to the text from my mother and calculate the minutes it has been since she wrote the words. I can see from her phone’s location services that she has gone to work and is moving about the hospital and that she has not done the things she threatened to do. Or at least not yet.
I light a candle and reread my three-part story and decide it is not a story at all and rip it out. I flip to the back of the journal to a page filled with the sentence “This is not about my mother.” The six words over and over in my messy black scrawl and I read them out loud and rock back and forth on my bed making waves of my body until my chest aches.
This is not about my mother. This is not about my mother. This is not about my mother. This is not about my mother. This is not about my mother. But I am waiting for her in this long line called the sentence.
I blow out the candle and run from porch to ocean. The pounding of heel on pavement, the sinking of ankle into sand. I don’t stop until the water fills my socks my ears. Neck slick and trembling. People stop to watch. Cloth hanging loose and heavy. Salty canvas skin. I walk, dripping, to the lighthouse. The two gnarled abrasions on the old door look vulvic. I press my wrists against the metal creases. Pulsing flesh made cold. I take a photo of the sunset and send it to my mother and it might be an apology and I’m starting to think I don’t quite know the difference between story and sorry.
I am standing naked in front of the mirror in the early morning cold of my bedroom. My figure is formless pink. If I look hard enough at my skin I can begin to see the veins and the thought of the blood moving through my body makes me sick and I think of the x-ray the doctor showed me the other day, shaking his head. “Yes, broken,” he said. Outside of the wispy white shadows of bone, my body a black cavern.
There’s a dream I keep having. In the dream, an empty belly. Broken incubation. Gestures of stifling. Sand rubbed into hair. The weight of dried saliva crusting. The honeying of animal instinct. In the dream, all the doors begin to stick. Windows crack. Shadows litter the floor. The vines crawl along cracks in the stone. Long jagged scars rising from doorstep to roof. Whole house distorted and sagging and in the yard, the trees bleed white. Bark sticky and frothing. In the dream, flesh tenders and falls. I suckle at bone. Marrow milk for days. Swallowed and kept.
This is not about my mother, but if it were, I would tell you about her long black coat. My mother barely standing leaned up against the oven clock that reads: 2:37 AM. My sighing mother with her wet eyes on the big plank hardwood and hands too tired to unbutton the eight buttons keeping her from going to bed. They are right about the places you are mothered. The things they hold. This kitchen. The floor. The sound of my mother’s feet as she moves, finally, to go upstairs. I can think of nothing to say to my mother in this moment except: how beautiful her bones look under her skin.
My phone doesn’t vibrate and I stare at the screen as it goes black again and again. I count the seconds. I wait for the pattern to change.
Once, watching a storm roil the water from my slanted porch, I felt the electricity burrow into my face, eat away eyeball. The static air whittled my body to pulp. I thought maybe I was ready to die. I texted my mother to say goodnight, though she’d been sleeping for hours.
The 1979 version of my mother—I yearn for her. Exuberant, fearless, leaping blindly into another life. Behind her, the A-frame house where her brother visited her bed at night to demand favors she dared not speak of; the house where her mother turned away morning after morning until my mother’s voice became silent and her body carried her as far away as it could. Straight into the arms of my reckless father. Straight north to where the sun doesn’t set for months at a time. Where the light reaches hot and white across the water. Where the light made everything including my mother, visible.
All that light. All that light in her.
The sun is rising and I’m in the water again. My skin, white and shaking in the vast gray foam. Above me, a flock of gulls rides the moving air. They appear to float instead of fly. I close my eyes. If you’re not used to it, standing with eyes shut in the ocean tide can cause vertigo. The briny breeze, the water advancing and retreating. Your body can’t help but shift with it. Your proprioception begins to fail. You think you might fall. And suddenly I see her. My mother. Not with my eyes but as if her whole being is suddenly present to me in this rhythmic, oneiric state of being; this shared reality of incessant descent. Everything in waves.
Body of daughter. Body of mother. Melancholy and cosmic. Suspended in the unceasing blue. I close my eyes, and sink down to her.
Kirstin Wagner is a writer, teacher, and PhD candidate in the UC Santa Cruz Literature Department. Her research concerns inherited trauma in families organizing around domestic violence. Her creative work is published in Genealogy, Bombay Gin Literary Journal, and Amerarcana. She has taught creative writing at Naropa University, Indiana University, UC-Santa Cruz, and in the Boulder public school system. You can find her hiding fairies in the redwoods, writing at the beach at 3 am, or eating pizza anywhere, anytime.