“Younger is better,” Mama says.
In the mirror’s reflection, she models upward strokes, the white cream on her fingertips disappears, absorbed by skin. The lesson continues. Always upward motion, never down. Why give gravity assistance? Gravity is a cruel trick leaving sagging skin. Each day a drip in the bucket, until finally, the bucket overflows and one day the wrinkles are noticeable.
I’m bored. The drops, the years, all sound impossible. Far away, at best. I can’t imagine getting wrinkles, growing old. Mama pounds on with tips. Moisturizer is your best friend, a weapon against the unseen enemy. Don’t skimp on quality products, your face will thank you even if your bank account doesn’t. Don’t forget the neck. And the hands. Age can be detected by those body parts as well. Never too early to start. I am 15.
“Don’t look,” Mama says.
Searing summer day, walking down the street of her hometown of Zadar. Men in tank tops repair a section of the ancient city wall. Scaffolding spires up towards the sky. The men whistle, invite us to come over and say hello. Whether to my mother or me, I’m unsure, but I don’t care to find out. I’m frightened. As if reading my mind, Mama says, “Don’t be scared. It’s their primitive way of complimenting us but ignore it. Ladies don’t respond.” A pair of older women walk behind us. They don’t get catcalls or invitations. I long to be an older woman, to not deal with this intrusion.
I want to tell the men I don’t want their unsolicited compliments. “Best not to engage,” Mama says. With chins up, eyes cast forward, I focus on an ornate building in the distance. We stride forward, pretending we don’t hear anything.
“I hate this,” I say to Mama.
“There are worst things,” she says. I am 17.
“The worst heartbreak of all,” Mama says. “Yet it happens to almost everyone.” We’re in a Pasadena hospital, a view of the San Gabriel foothills outside the window. Dark clouds shroud the hills. Mama flew down from Seattle in the early morning hours, and now she’s bedside as if holding vigil.
I tell her it doesn’t feel that way. No one else seems to miscarry.
“This happens, but no one talks about it,” she says.
“Why not?” I say.
“What is there to say? No words can make it better.” It’s such a Slavic thing to say.
This isn’t even a typical miscarriage, I want to say but don’t. An ectopic pregnancy treated with methotrexate, that ruptured before being absorbed by the bloodstream. Internal bleeding. Emergency operation. A blood transfusion. My doctor says I arrived at the hospital not a moment too soon. I’ll be stuck here for a week.
The hospital is cold, the vents pumping in artificial, arctic-like air. Mama turns on the television, commercials flicker on the screen. I’m lost. I want to leave this cavernous structure, a temporary home to many wounded bodies and souls such as mine. White walls, gleaming cream floors, an underlying, unnerving quiet in the halls. From the rooms, from the head of my bed, the low beep of machines.
The nurse walks in with another bouquet of blossoms. She smiles, but barely glances at me. Mama does the smiling for both of us, her lips move. She reads the card poking out of the flowers. I return my attention to the television, wanting no part of the pity gifts. “Why didn’t you answer the nurse?” Mama says. “You could have at least smiled.”
I cast my eyes toward the window. Puffs of white clouds drift by.
“I didn’t want to engage,” I finally say, answering her question. I am 30.
“It will be all right,” Mama says.
The doctor announces it’s time to get out of bed. Panicked, I don’t register her explanations. I realize it’s necessary, but know it’ll hurt. With much effort, I stand up, take a few steps, then retreat to my bed. Pain stabs my abdomen and shoots down my legs. “Good job,” she says. On her way out, she instructs the nurse to give me more pain meds.
Every day Mama assists me as I take my steps. During my week-long stay, visitors glance or even stare at me when I practice in the hallways. With one hand clutching the IV drip, and the other holding onto Mama, I imagine I make quite the sight. My hair hasn’t been washed for days…since the morning I was admitted.
“What’s wrong with that lady? Isn’t she too young to walk like that?” A girl no more than ten asks her preoccupied mother, who chats with a nurse at the nurse’s station in low tones.
“It’s not nice to stare,” I say as I inch past her.
Mama shushes me. “She’s just a child.” From then on, I imagine a translucent bubble around me. The bubble makes me invisible. Inside my bubble, I can be 30 forever and nothing will ever hurt me.
“You should get out,” Mama says.
Finally discharged after seven days, I’ve been home for a couple of weeks. She extends her trip, staying in Los Angeles to help me recuperate. The torrential rainy days that dominated winter have lifted. Now birds sing, tepid warmth fuses the air. Soon the jacaranda trees outside the living room window will bloom.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to do your exercise outside?”
I shrug. My exercise consists of walking for progressively longer increments. We are now up to two blocks.
I eat. I sleep. I walk. Sometimes I read or watch television. I avoid phone calls and texts. We don’t discuss the hospital visit or the ectopic. I make an appointment to see my old therapist. Although the past month feels like years, I am still 30.
“What a welcome surprise,” Mama says. “Open it.”
My sister sends a package that sits on the coffee table for three days. Along with Mama, my husband encourages me to open the gift. They glance at the present as if it contains a secret elixir. Wedged between them on the sofa, I slide the silver ribbon off of the metallic box. Between layers of tissue paper, I glimpse silky magenta fabric. Holding it up, the pair ooh and ah over the modern, form-fitting cut and designer label as if I’m a toddler discovering birthday presents for the first time.
“Wear this to your appointment,” Mama says.
“It’s too young for me,” I say. It’s the type of top my sister and her college friends wear. The pair disagrees. Mama and my husband form a united front forged on sorrow over the lost pregnancy and worry over the patient. Their newfound closeness irritates me like woolen fabric against a rash. To end their badgering, I resign myself to wearing the trendy top under a blazer.
I am 30 but feel 50.
“Today’s the day,” Mama says.
I drive to West Los Angeles by myself, in spite of Mama’s offers to come with me. “This is something I need to do by myself,” I say. For over a month I’ve lived with doctors, tests, nurses, a concerned husband, and Mom. Even as I slept, either a machine or a person looked after me. I have been building up to this trek, and need to venture forth solo.
I wear my sister’s top for good luck. Not wanting to worry anyone, I don’t tell them I’m afraid. I haven’t driven anywhere or been out of the house since the hospital, other than my walk up and down the block.
“I can do this,” I whisper to no one in the car. My hands grip the wheel. Navigating through traffic on the 10 freeway is disorienting. A whirlwind of vehicles weaving in and out of lanes, sudden stops, and unexpected accelerations.
I arrive thirty minutes early, and drive around, looking for differences in the landscape. Nothing has changed. Only I have changed. Spotting my favorite café, I make a snap decision to treat myself to a latte. Between the hospital staff and my mom and husband, the dehydration warnings, it has been impossible to get a coffee, let alone an espresso beverage. A latte will help me feel more…myself, I rationalize. I veer off the main road and cruise the tree-lined neighborhood streets, searching for parking. As if by magic, a spot appears two blocks away.
For a minute, I sit in the car, questioning if the distance to the café is too far. I have built up to two blocks during my walking practice with Mama. The incisions take time to heal, my doctor had said. But two blocks there, plus two blocks back. Plus the short distance from the therapist’s parking lot to her office. Fuck it. The espresso will fuel me. One of life’s little luxuries I’ve been deprived of with the efforts to heal. And I feel deprived of so much.
I seemingly glide along the pavement to the café. No one gives me a second glance. My gait is normal, my speed passable. I’m an average woman on a walk, not a surgery patient on the mend.
At the café, I stand in line behind a pair of boys wearing college sweatshirts. Their laughs rise above the whirring espresso machines. With eyes trained on the menu above the baristas’ heads, I ignore their casual glances. I’m not in a hospital gown hobbling down the hallway, I remind myself. They’re not looking at me, but something behind me.
I remember the bright top I’m wearing. Maybe they perceive me as one of their tribe—a college girl. Considering my recent experience, the notion is laughable.
The guys order, then turn, gesturing to me. “And whatever this young lady would like.”
“No, thank you,” I say. They’ve intruded on the bubble I imagine is around me.
“Our pleasure,” says the blonde one. Greek letters are emblazoned across his chest. I knew his type in college. I wave away his offer with a straight face, anticipating a cheesy comeback. “After all, it’s Kindness Week,” he says.
The barista at the register rolls her eyes and we exchange glances.
The accuracy of my prediction pushes an impromptu smile. It is not Kindness Week. “Thank you, but I’m good.”
Minutes later, latte in hand, I will myself to continue the few yards to the end of the first block. The walk back to my car becomes a hike. I shove away the inkling of anxiety to a corner of my mind. The cup hot in my hand, the strong scent of the espresso calls to me. I take a sip, the hot liquid comfort warming my insides. The sun feels welcoming on my hair, my skin.
A black BMW rolls to a stop alongside me, but I pay it no mind. As I plod forward, the window rolls down, the mechanical whir by my side. “Hey, remember us?” It’s the boys from the café. I put one foot in front of the other, my flats cutting into my swollen feet.
“We’re going to a party. Wanna come?”
I don’t respond.
“Come on,” the other one says. “It’ll be fun.”
What I want is to get to my car. I see it from a distance now, at the end of the block. I want to get to my therapy appointment. I want to have a baby. Watch my child grow up. Take them to the park and cafés. I want to be the woman pushing the stroller.
The car idles. I ignore them. Do not engage, Mama had said long ago. And so I walk.
“Whatever,” says the driver.
“Bitch,” says his friend. The screech of wheels as the BMW accelerates down the empty, idyllic street.
My hand shakes, the liquid burns on my skin. I rub with napkins. I am 30, I am not a peer I want to shout at them, but I’m alone with the rustle of leaves.
“How did it go?” Mama says.
“Fine,” I say.
Night falls and I can’t sleep. With eyes closed, I inhale and exhale, going through the motions of meditation but my mind races with doubt. Was ritualistic moisturizing with expensive creams to blame? If I look my age, the boys would gather I was a decade older. They would leave me alone. Was it the glossy top? Was my smile taken as encouragement? I shoo away the thoughts. That’s how they want me to think. That’s what they want me to believe. All my fault. No. Forget it. Who are they, anyway? I am 30. I want to be left alone.
“I heard you tossing and turning,” Mama says.
She greets me in the hallway. My husband has already left for work. The scent of lemons wafts through the air. Her famous bunt cake, cooled and glazed. When did she wake up?
“Is there a special occasion?” I ask.
“You’re back in one piece,” Mama says as if that wasn’t a possibility. A smile as wide as the ocean spreads across her face.
“How about a cup of coffee to celebrate?” I say, and she laughs. No dice. She refrains from lecturing about the way caffeine dehydrates the skin.
Tea and dessert await me at the table. She bakes to show love and care. This I know from childhood. The soothing chamomile slides down my throat. “How was it yesterday? You didn’t say much.”
I tell Mama about the exchange with the boys. She shakes her head, her eyebrows knit. Leaning over, she hugs me, and I sigh. “I’m sorry that happened,” she says. “It’s a reminder.”
“Reminder of what?” I smile, her suggestion far-fetched.
“Reminder to teach your future son to respect women, even if no one is watching,” Mama says. The last bit of tangy lemon cake is a sweet sponge in my mouth. Savoring the soft confection, I wash it down with chamomile.
Mama retreats to the kitchen, her words staying with me. For a moment, I can picture this vague future son.
He runs ahead on a tree-lined street. Palm fronds rustle in the wind. Close behind, I step over cracks in the pavement, hurrying to not fall behind. I’m still young. He is glorious. His dark curls bounce with each step. The sun glints off of his glossy locks. And everywhere around us, the warmth of the sun bathes the landscape a bright white. He is three.
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