I hate the way my mother uses the word “dreaming.” She retired recently, and now her online status message is often “dreaming,” which I understand to mean, “dreaming of the new life I will have now that I am not consumed by my soul-killing job.” It makes me angry, because she should have been dreaming all along; now is the time for action, quick, before you reach the time for dying. Why retire at all, if you never bothered to dream of something better? I am brusque in my chatting with her; there should be a font treatment for the anger I feel. Brutalics.
I’m on the subway, heading out to the end of the N line, which will deposit me in Astoria, a small-town-like subset of Queens. The train is of the old school, with two long communal benches running the length of the car on either side, breaking only at the sliding doors. Across from me is a middle-aged Indian woman with a prominent facial tic. I try to focus on my reading material, but the tic in my peripheral vision keeps drawing my attention and my notice appears to increase the intensity of the tic, which escalates into a panoply of pained expressions whenever I look directly at the woman. It reminds me of a game invented by my friend Joy, a making-faces game. Two people sit face-to-face, and one covers and uncovers their eyes in slow, steady repetition while the other makes a series of faces, switching in the eyes-covered downbeats. The effect is a living slideshow of expressions and the objective on the part of the face-maker is to get the other person to laugh at one of their faces. Try as she might – and under scrutiny the effort is notable – the Indian woman fails to make me laugh. By the time we reach her stop, two ahead of mine, it is still her turn to make faces. It will remain her turn.
With the Indian woman gone, I am free to scan the car, and find myself likewise being appraised by one of the few remaining occupants, a boy not more than eight years of age. He is sitting up on his knees, backwards in his seat, with his belly pressed against the seat-back of the bench. The car is almost empty now, giving him plenty of room to wriggle on the seat next to his mother who stares straight ahead with the kind of resignation forged by constant exposure to a child’s hyperactivity. She is equally oblivious to her son’s solicitous over-the-shoulder stare in my direction, which I imagine is largely due to the fact that I am wearing a hat knitted into an approximation of a raccoon head, complete with a tiny bobble nose, two button eyes, and three-dimensional raccoon ears jutting from the upper seam. A face sitting above my face; I am a little totem pole. It has made me popular with children of late.
I will never have children, because whatever one fears and tries to suppress in oneself will manifest in their children with a vengeance. This is nature’s way of keeping things real; it made you that way for a reason, see, and if you refuse to play the game properly, you will be cursed with a living incarnation of your deceit. I am nature’s rebuke to my parents, and life is enough of an insult to me that I need no rebuke of my own. For my parents, both of whom abandoned reality long ago to live in a more comfortable world of denial, having children was just one more distraction in the grand scheme of self-avoidance. They got more than they bargained for when I arrived on the scene, the ultimate observer and loudspeaker of social subtext. Even though I know, instinctively, that no one wants to hear the truth – that everyone, in fact, is doing all they can to remain unaware of it – I cannot keep it to myself. I watch the boy beside his indifferent mother, and wonder what latent tendency he visits upon her to make her so distant, leaving her child to seduce strangers on the subway for attention.
My mother talked a good game in college, then abruptly abandoned all feminist pretext when she married my father at the age of 21, let his ambitions of becoming a musician move them to California, and eventually left her job to keep books for him when he went into an owner-partnership of a musical equipment store. Her lost dream within his, nesting together like dolls, and it took her almost 40 years to tell him she’d had enough and wanted to retire. Now she is “dreaming,” wasting time because she never learned how to want something for herself. I have no sympathy for my mother’s self-made prison. Lately, I have turned off my chat program because I can no longer tolerate her attempts to grasp, conversationally, at the loose ends of my life. Now our contact is mostly limited to playing an online version of Scrabble, and at this I beat her as often and as thoroughly as possible; I imagine each victory driving home the point that I am better at the game, that I will not lose as she has lost. I don’t know if my mother gets the point or not. I know it hurts her to be cut off from my life, but I know equally that she has no real interest in the truth of my existence, only in those particulars that provide fodder for her own ego, for conversations with her friends, for something, anything to talk to my father about after 40 years. So I have no sympathy for her, and no sympathy for anyone, really. When I speak, it is in brutalics. The subway reaches the end of the line.
At 28, I have compensated for my mother by mastering the art of wanting something for myself. I’m drifting along the snow-dusted main streets of Astoria, two corner-turns away from my boyfriend’s house, but mentally I abandoned the relationship months ago. My body keeps coming back here, running on automatic, because I’ve come to depend on his stability, the comparative luxury of his bathtub versus my stand-up shower. In my heart I know these are not reasons to date a person. After 18 months together, he has lost the thrill of the new to me, and I have yet to discover the thrill of the familiar. He greets me with a dopey smile as I enter his apartment, rises from the half-finished painting at his easel to help me remove my winter layers. He kisses me hello and there is nothing thrilling about it. The painting on his easel has been half-finished for the length of our entire relationship; the studio part of his studio apartment is full of half-finished canvasses, stacked and waiting for completion. More and more I suspect he will never finish a single one, that they only serve to represent the idea of creative expression – how can anyone still feel the inspiration that drove them to create a painting years ago? – that he simply needs an illusion of being an artist to keep him alive, but the reality is too much for him to execute. The secret of the familiar is that there is no thrill to it.
“I’m taking a bath,” I say. I do not say, “I’m leaving you in the morning.”