One afternoon, in a motel room on Cape Cod Bay, my older brother Armand and I wrapped our sleeping mother’s arms in toilet paper. A few months prior, she had developed a routine during which she would take a long nap every afternoon to reduce the amount of time she spent feeling miserable. We were nine and six, respectively, and figured that this was the best way to keep her from turning on the faucet.
“I’m running out.” I was almost done with my first roll, after having bound her left arm at least four times over. This wasn’t the padded, pillow-y tissue we used at home; this was thin, scratchy, and made me envy grizzly bears who wiped themselves on tree trunks.
Armand checked to see how I was doing. “You might have to go Daddy’s room for more”.
Our father had chosen to stay in a different room, in the building next to ours. This, he and my mother had agreed, would be the last vacation we would take before she dropped his last name.
Mommy stirred in her sleep and ripped the paper. Armand huffed; he knew he would have to patch it up.
My other brother, Eric, aged ten, was chasing seagulls on the shore. He wasn’t helping us, because Armand had kicked him out for yelling that he needed the toilet paper for his “bunghole” (Eric watched “Beavis and Butt-Head” religiously, and after a few episodes, that became his favorite word).
Mommy’s elbow was bruised; she had bumped her other elbow against a wall a couple of days before, so she had to bump this one as well, to make it equal.
“How will she eat?”
“We’ll feed her with a spoon.” Armand tossed an empty toilet paper roll to the side. “But make sure it’s clean. No smudges”.
The day before we went on vacation, Armand saw Mommy in the kitchen, scrubbing a fork that had already gone through the dishwasher. He told us the story that night, when we were all huddled under his blanket.
“I told her, ‘The fork’s not dirty –’ ”
“There are germs you can’t see.” I interrupted, parroting what the nurse at my school said whenever a kid tried to justify not washing their hands.
Armand frowned. “I’m talking, Lenny.”
“Shut up, Boy-Name.” Eric poked my arm.
Like Mommy, and her mother before her, I was named Yelena. But Armand, who had seen me in the maternity ward at Boston Medical and been disappointed in my lack of male genitalia, insisted on calling me “Lenny,” and it stuck.
Armand continued. “Anyway, I told her, ‘You just washed it, Mommy’, and she just said, ‘Yes, Armand. I know.’”
Scenes like that weren’t unusual in our house. Mommy was wonderfully wild and silly, more like an older sibling than a parent; she’d wake us up every morning by tickling us and read our bedtime stories in funny voices every night. But she would also wash the dishes by hand even after they’d been washed by the machine. Legend has it that she had been afraid to change our diapers because she was worried she might hurt us. When it got to the point where she wasn’t packing our lunches anymore, because she thought she might accidentally poison us, my father began sleeping in the living room, with thoughts of separate houses and getting primary custody of me, Eric and Armand going through his head.
He’d tried to help her many times. One day, when my parents were first married, my grandmother, Metzmama (literally, “big mother”), came by for lunch. Mommy had just finished setting the table when Daddy handed Metzmama a piece of paper.
Metzmama read it out loud. “Kathleen Aiello, Psychologist.”
My grandmother smirked. Where she had grown up, people’s lives revolved around superstitions; before going on vacation, they’d break something to ensure a safe and happy trip. They never passed the salt to each other at dinner, because if they did, they’d fight. Women bought bracelets with a little blue evil eye to protect them. Bad luck was everywhere, and they did everything they could to avoid it. So her daughter was just extra superstitious; so what? As for doctors, they were only called if somebody was either dying or being born.
Metzmama rolled her eyes. “What she needs is work.”
According to my grandmother, work was the cure-all for whatever emotional or mental problem one was suffering from. When a boy had stood my mother up on the night of her senior prom, Metzmama had told her, “You know what’s good for a broken heart? Washing the minivan!” and tossed a sponge at her. Upon watching a documentary about people who were afraid of heights, she had sneered, “I wish I had enough time on my hands to sit around and think about what scares me.”
Once, my father was reading the paper, and an article about a shooting at a bank near us caught his attention.
“Three people wounded…. expected to recover.” Daddy skimmed the article. “The suspect is an eighteen-year-old male from Acton….diagnosed with severe depression over five years ago.”
“He should have been focusing on his studies!” Mommy imitated her mother; accent, mannerisms and all. My grandmother scowled. My father had tears streaming down his face. There really was no one like my mother; only she could crack him up one minute and drive him to insanity the next.
“I know where that psychologist’s office is. I drove by it last week on my way to Baron Armen’s funeral.” Metzmama took a sip of water. “So many kids – sixteen, seventeen years old. You should have seen what they were wearing!” She tugged her shirt collar. “Ties and vests!”
She held a spoonful of rice up to her mouth. “But if she wants to whine to somebody, that’s all right. Yes eench em imanoom? What do I know? I’m just ignorant.” She said, her tone suggesting that she, in her mind, was the least ignorant person alive.
My mother stared at the wall, thinking about the teenagers who sat on Dr. Aiello’s couch in their ties and vests, wondering if they ate anything weird or spoke more than one language at home.
My father moved his chair a little closer to Metzmama.
“Remember when Yelena had that infection?” He asked.
He himself remembered it vividly. My mother’s aunt and uncle lived a few houses away from my father’s childhood home in Laguna Beach. When my mother was a kid, she and her parents would fly in from Boston every summer to visit them, and whenever she got tired of eating yogurt and listening to her elders drone on about whatever was going on in the world at the time (one summer, they talked about nothing but yellow ribbons and Jimmy Carter), she would go over to his place and play.
On one particular Thursday evening, he was under a picnic table, explaining to her what an earthquake drill was, when she saw an apricot fall down from a next-door neighbor’s tree into my father’s yard and ran over to it.
“Alex, look.” She showed my father the fruit and poked one side of it, and then poked the other. “It must be juicy.”
“I wouldn’t eat that.” He warned. “It’s been on the ground.”
My mother bit into the apricot anyway, finished it and spat out the pit.
That weekend, her appetite disappeared. Then, there was the abdominal pain. “Like fire ants running a marathon in my intestines,” my mother always says, whenever she recalls the story today. It was so bad that she fainted twice on the way to the hospital. My grandmother prayed for her throughout the whole ordeal and never left her side.
“Of course I remember, Alex.” Metzmama cleared her throat. “What about it?”
Daddy sat there, not believing that she was the same woman who had once held her daughter in a hospital bed as an IV dripped relief into her veins. He got up and cleared his own plate from the table.
Mommy had gone to therapy for one, maybe two sessions, and then stopped. Once, my father had tricked her into going to a third session; he told her they were going to see a movie, and she had been excited, until they pulled up to Dr. Aiello’s building. She cried, hurled every curse word she knew at him and told him not to speak to her again. He drove her home in silence, happy to do just that.
Within a few hours, she was in front of his door. He knew it was her because he could hear the faint clicking of her touching the doorknob repeatedly, like she always did; one-two-three-four-five. He opened the door and saw her – hair unkempt, eyes blotchy. He softened on the inside.
“I left my keychain here.” She was referring to her dolphin keychain that she needed to put by her bed every night, in the same position, in order to go to sleep without any stress.
When Armand and I had finished wrapping my mother’s arms, it was already late in the afternoon. I couldn’t read clocks, but I used the motel housekeeping staff to tell time; every day, after they finished cleaning the very last building on the property, they’d eat lunch on the steps and yammer to each other in a strange mix of Portuguese and Russian. My mother did not wake up until well after the cleaning ladies had chucked their empty granola bar wrappers and potato chip bags into the trash. Armand and I stood on either side of the bed, waiting patiently for Mommy to open her eyes. She blinked, turned her head and saw that her arms were covered in white tissue.
“Ooh! I’m a mummy!” My mother rose from the bed and took a few heavy, Frankenstein-like steps. She broke free of the toilet paper and peeled it off, undoing everything Armand and I had done. She was laughing, as if we were playing a game, and I was seething. My eyes felt tight, and I titled my head back to keep them dry.
“I’m winning!” A man’s voice startled me. “You lose!”
I looked out the window and saw Daddy and Eric in their swimsuits, sunburned and soaking wet, racing each other on the beach. When Daddy saw me, he waved, and started jogging towards our room. When he saw his wife, he slowed down. Mommy stepped onto the porch, shaking the remaining bits of toilet paper off of her.
“How’s the water?” Her tone was not bitter, but not upbeat.
“Amazing. It would be a sin not to go swimming today.”
My mother shrugged. “I can’t, though.”
My father looked relieved; she had a reason not to go in the water with us, and it had nothing to do with him.
I was about to cry, when Armand pulled me aside and whispered in my ear.
“Let me borrow your red and blue scrunchies. We’ll use those tomorrow for her hands, to keep the toilet paper on.”
My red and blue scrunchies; my absolute favorite hair accessories that I wore every day and never let anyone else touch. I nodded without hesitation, and we walked along the shore.
After we had finished swimming, and Mommy had washed the sea salt out of our skin and hair, she rounded us up to go out to dinner in Provincetown. At least, she tried to.
“I’m not gonna say it again, you two; let’s go!” Mommy tried to separate my brothers, who were grabbing and pushing each other.
“Armand spit on me!”
“You spit on me, stupid!”
“We don’t spit on each other in this house.” Daddy raised his voice.
Eric, smart-ass-in-chief, smirked at Daddy. “We’re not at our house.”
Daddy fixed Eric with a look made of ice. Eric gulped; Daddy’s eyes were crystal balls, in which my brother saw himself being put over a big, hairy knee if he didn’t shut up.
“Boys.” My mother looked at me and smiled her warm, sweet smile that made me understand why my dad had stayed with her for fifteen years. She winked at me with her right eye, then again with her left.
She stared at the TV screen, where Vanna White was turning letters on a board with her hands. The puzzle was half-done, with O’s and S’s filling up the grid.
“Dark Side of the Moon.” My mother would always solve the puzzle faster than the contestants did, and usually yelled out the answer excitedly, but this particular one made her voice go quiet.
Mommy looked out the window. She wasn’t with me; she was in college again, sitting on a blanket with my father, next to his record player, as David Gilmour told them to breathe. My father looked at the floor.
My mother turned her attention back to Wheel of Fortune. John, a contestant, was squinting. He looked nervous, searching in his head for the right letter.
“E! E! Christ.” Mommy wouldn’t curse when us kids were within earshot. “Come on!”
John yelled “P!” The buzzer grunted. The next contestant spun the wheel.
My mother threw down her hands in frustration and turned the television off. She was tired of screaming at this man behind a glass screen.
Now she knew how we felt.
Whenever my friends from down south and everywhere else ask me where Provincetown is, I immediately think of a placemat that I had when I was a kid. It had a map of the United States on it, and my father had taught me to identify Massachusetts by pointing out that it was shaped like an elephant’s head; that Boston and Western Massachusetts made up the face, the North Shore was the ear, and the Cape was the trunk.
“This is Provincetown, Lenny.” Daddy would point to the very tip of the Cape, where my home state curls in on itself. “The nostrils”.
It made sense, because life flows in and out of the elephant’s nostrils twenty-four hours a day. Even after its surrounding towns close their shops and turn in for the night, Provincetown stays awake; lights are left on, streets are crammed with couples covered in piercings and ink, shrieking children chase each other around MacMillan Pier. The place is vibrant, constantly breathing; a maelstrom of chatter and color.
We walked up and down Commercial Street, looking for a restaurant that wasn’t packed. An old woman, wearing at least ten bracelets on each wrist and a balloon hat on her head, sat in front of the town hall playing a keyboard. Next to her, a man was tapping his high-heeled foot to her music. His lip gloss was smeared and he smelled like he had dived into a pool of Chanel. There are two things in this town that are hard to come by: the first one being parking spaces, and the second being judgement. In this tiny part of Massachusetts, the words “I’m sorry” are considered more revolting than the words “I love guns.” You don’t apologize, because no one looks at you funny, whether you’re a man whose eyelids and lips shimmer like tinsel, or a mother of three who needs to touch every door knob five times before walking into or leaving a room.
“Mommy! Daddy!” Eric ran towards an adult toy store, pointing at the display case. “Giant crayons!”
“Why are they buzzing?” I asked.
My parents took our hands and started walking faster.
We finally found a place to eat. After we were seated, our waiter poured each one of us a glass of water. My mom winced when she noticed a small fingerprint on the mouth of her glass. She handed it back to the waiter.
“Could I have another one, please?”
My father covered his face with his palm. The waiter rolled his eyes and took the glass from Mommy.
“I’m sorry.” She looked down at her lap. I didn’t know who she was apologizing to.
At the table across from us, two women were making out. I wondered if they were happy, if they slept in the same bed at night. Eric made smooching noises with his mouth, and Armand pressed his lips together to keep from laughing.
“Eww! Gross!” I said, perhaps a little too loudly, and pointed to the women, who stopped kissing and turned to look at us.
Mommy turned cherry red. She apologized to the women and told my dad and brothers she’d be back. Then, she marched me outside and spanked me five times. I silently prayed for a sixth.
I wailed so loudly that a drag queen stopped hawking tickets for an X-rated karaoke show long enough to stare. I couldn’t understand why she was spanking me. I hadn’t meant anything bad by what I’d said; at that age, I couldn’t watch the prince kiss Sleeping Beauty on TV without cracking a smile.
My parents had never kissed like that – at least, not in front of us. They never hugged much, either. My mother and father never ran low on hugs and kisses for my brothers and me, but when I look back on my childhood today, trying to find a memory of my parents showing affection toward each other is like trying to find a movie where Jack Nicholson plays a nice guy.
We went back inside, where I, at Mommy’s request, mumbled an apology to the women I had just humiliated. My dad glanced at me, then at my mother, like he had something to say, but started reading the menu instead. Eric and Armand were coloring with some crayons the waiter had given to us. Meanwhile, I was creating stories in my head, where my parents’ mouths collided, and Mommy wasn’t worried about tasting another person’s saliva.
The next day, my mother was sprawled across her bed, doing what she usually did in the afternoon. Armand and I had just started wrapping her up, when Daddy knocked on the door.
“I got it!” Eric ran to let our father in.
“Quiet!” Armand hissed, gesturing towards Mommy. Eric opened the door. Daddy patted Eric’s head, then started looking around the room.
“I could have sworn I had a fifty, and now I can’t find it.” He walked around, touching his pockets. “Did I leave it here?”
He spotted Mommy sleeping peacefully on the bed and stopped. When she woke up that day, the next day, and the day after that, she’d still be doing things in fives, ignoring any recommendations to see someone who might change her life. Just thinking about it made his fists clench.
“Give me that, son.” He took the roll of toilet paper away from Armand, and gently unwrapped his wife’s hands. “You’re wasting it.”
At the end of the week, we had packed our suitcases. Daddy loaded them into the trunk of the family Subaru. Mommy was locking and unlocking the door repeatedly, and looking into the room’s windows.
“Do you have all the suitcases?”
“Can you check again?” She dug her nails into the windowsill.
My father ran a hand through his hair and exhaled. He didn’t want to count the suitcases. He didn’t want to pack any more lunches or triple-wash any more utensils or sit and watch nagging, restless worries erode his best friend, the girl who he waited all year to see when he was a boy in his native California, the mother of his kids. Most of all, he didn’t want to go meet with a lawyer the next day, even though it had been his idea, and it wasn’t because he had a problem with getting up early in the morning.
But she was watching him nervously, and he checked again, for the same reason that it pained him so much to do so. He gave her a thumbs-up. Then he raised his other thumb in the air, to make it equal. My mother loosened her grip on the windowsill.
“Eric,” Daddy said as he closed the trunk, “make sure your sister takes her medicine. Traffic is gonna be horrendous on the bridge, and I won’t be able to stop.”
My “medicine” was Benadryl. I wasn’t allergic to anything, but I had severe motion sickness, and a family friend had told my parents that giving me Benadryl before every long car ride would put me to sleep so that I wouldn’t feel anything. It worked, but I hated the fact that I needed it, that it made me stick out from everyone else in the car. It also tasted horrendous, but that’s beside the point.
Eric took the packet of Benadryl from Daddy, tore it open, and put a pink pill in my palm.
“Take it right now, Lenny.”
I cradled the pill in my hand, watching my mother. There was nothing I wouldn’t do to take her fingers off of that windowsill, to make her stop checking and re-checking things, to keep her awake in the middle of the day—and there was nothing I could do.
I held the Benadryl out to Mommy, waiting for her to turn her head and notice me.
Eric knew what I wanted to do. He wrestled the pill out of my hand.
“Let go, Eric!” I protested, but my brother shoved the Benadryl into my open mouth. I tried to spit it out, but he wouldn’t uncover my mouth until I chewed and swallowed the medication.
“It doesn’t make you better.” He wiped his hand on his pants. “All it does is make you drowsy.”
Illustrations by Lilit Markosian