On Caracas, and Driving
Through There One Last Time
by Scott Broker
My mother first tells me to play dead on a beach near Caracas. I am crying, or have worried her by crawling off toward the surf while she napped, and she is leaning close so the words make an impression. “Play dead,” she says.
Or maybe we are in La Palma, Panama. I am crying, or have accidentally scratched her face with a poorly-cut fingernail, and she is leaning over and saying, “Play dead” with a voice stripped of inflection. Who knows if I register the command; I am not yet walking, let alone converting her intonation, gesture, and language into a singular message. Who knows if we are even in La Palma, Panama.
We might be in Ventura, California, or Sausalito, or maybe even Florence, which is up north in Oregon. This is the first year of my life: a listless drift up the Americas, nights spent on beaches or near beaches, my mother calling me barnacle baby for the way that I cling to her. In photo albums, we are sunburnt, occasionally smiling, and wrapped in the arms of various men and women. When I see them—often tattooed, muscled, and beaming—I wonder if my mother told them she loved them, that she would choose this beach over any other for the rest of her life, that they could be a new family: the mother, the seafarer, the barnacle baby. How often did they say I love you, too? And how frequently was I in the room while they made love?
I am crying. I am worrying my mother. I am scratching her face with a nail that she herself cut poorly. I am soiling my diaper, reminding her of my father, waking up too early, or interrupting her sandy and salted sex with tears. I am too small, too needy, too vulnerable in a world that spins with so much flying shrapnel.
She is saying, Play dead, barnacle baby. You’re clinging too hard right now. I need a minute, or ten, to let myself believe that I don’t need to be here for you.
My mother is a good person. She commands me to play dead with love. I know that it begins somewhere in her coastal movement, though, because her mind turns on her when it is too warm, too loud, or too crowded. In the first year, I am crying, the beaches are pulsing with sunlight, and the locals are flocking around her, wrapping their arms around her shoulders and asking for pictures. She is saying “Play dead” to me at least once, but possibly more. It might be a weekly plea, a daily one.
I do not resent her for this.
By the time we settle in West Seattle, I know the command and I know it well. When I am seven, she is dating Richie and telling me to play dead whenever they want a night out and can’t find a sitter.
“He can just play dead,” she says, pulling Richie toward the door. “He’s king of the house. Right, honey? Now go play dead.”
My mother tucks against Richie’s neck whenever he laughs. He laughs, now, and she moves her way in, glancing at me beneath narrowed lids.
“A night in is just as fun,” he says, throwing himself against the denim couch. “Be revived!” he shouts to me. I am standing in the corner, goggles still strapped to my forehead from our afternoon at the pool.
“Yes, yes,” my mother says, jumping over the couch and standing on its cushions. “Let the boy live!” she yells, lifting her arms from her sides and up toward the ceiling. Her voice is tuned to an unfamiliar pitch and she rubs her hand against her neck when she settles beside Richie. “Welcome back to the land of the living.”
My body sways above stationed feet. I am not sure if I should be laughing, playing dead despite Richie’s resurrection, or doing something else entirely.
“It’s bedtime,” my mother says, pointing a skinny finger at me.
The two tuck me in together and then have sex in the living room. My mother pounds her fists against the couch. When Richie shushes her, she pretends to restrain gasps and moans but manages to let them escape like unwieldy phantoms. She is doing this for me, casting her shouts like small rocks. She knows that there are multiple ways to break down a door, to let me know that I do not have the power to take away her life.
“Come on, Sarah,” Richie whispers.
“Why is everything always about him?” she says, locking herself in the bathroom while he speaks from the other side of the door.
We are here for years. Richie moves in. The denim couch is replaced by a leather one, which stays cooler in the summer. My mother buys a sunhat, then cries when Richie makes a joke about Seattle’s weather. We cover the refrigerator with drawings I’ve done in art class. Richie says I have potential and frames one of them for my 8th birthday. We spend weekends sitting on the beach. The way that the sound is divided up by land makes for relatively calm water. My mother says she loves this. Other times she says she hates this.
When Richie leaves her, my mother sleeps in my room for almost six months. She says that she can’t sleep without hearing someone else’s breath, that Richie stained her walls grey with his smoking and his bad energy. I am in the 5th grade. I lie still every night while she cries or wraps her arms around my stomach, asking what she would possibly do without me, without my love. For those months, I don’t have friends over and don’t ask to stay elsewhere. I want to be simple and non-burdening. I lie still. I play dead.
Then, it’s April. My mother is drinking tequila in the kitchen with Sally, who she has been sleeping with most nights of the week. Sally works at Swedish Medical Center, which is near the university where my mother is an administrative assistant. Though she is an RN, Sally says that the patients have been depressing her lately. A new job might be on the horizon. Sally does not shush my mother when they have sex in the living room, shower, or bedroom.
“You’ve got a special sort of lady here,” she says, handing me a bowl of cowboy chili.
My mother moves behind me and hugs my head. “He already knows that,” she says, kissing the top of my head. “And I’ve got a special sort of boy.”
During dinner, my mother tells Sally that we haven’t eaten anything but Hamburger Helper since Richie left. This chili reminds her of home, of California, of times that were better than then. My mother is lying, of course—she has made her way through two cookbooks with skill and innovation—but I assume that this is one of her soft lies.
When they are drunk, later, Sally says, “Fuck that Richie guy.”
My mother stands, meeting their foreheads above the coffee table. “Yeah, fuck him.”
I am supposed to be scooping us bowls of ice cream but am unable to move. When my arm relaxes, the bowl drops from my hand.
“What are you doing?” my mother yells, running into the kitchen and kneeling beside the bits of porcelain. “Out of the kitchen,” she says. “Out, out, out.”
“I can clean it.”
“Just go to your room. I don’t want to see you right now.”
I lie still. I try to sleep. My mother and Sally have sex in the kitchen. Sally yells, “Fuck that Richie guy” again. It is late. My mother bursts into my room and pulls the framed drawing from my wall. (Tomorrow, I will find it cast off into the backyard, the drawings from the refrigerator pressed down in the trash and covered in ground beef. My mother will say, “I’m sorry, baby. He had to go, though. He’s been dragging us down all year. Now get me some soda at the store. My stomach is in shambles.”) The drawing is of a shark swimming toward a pair of unsuspecting legs. Around both, scrawls of blue.
Spring passes damply. I try playing soccer in the yard but it is too sodden, soaking my shoes and socks. I go to the beach, chasing the ball across the pebbled expanse, but the sand kicks up and clings to my body. I try to shake it from my pants until my face is overwhelmed by heat, made red and tearful. A girl who lives down the street comes over and asks why I am crying. I tell her that I don’t know. I don’t. These days, I am surprised by what makes me cry. Sand, sandwiches wrapped in newspaper scraps, movie nights with my mother. It does not help that the sky is a mess of grey, unbroken by sunlight for weeks at a time. Sally says that there is a correlation between sun deprivation and emergencies in the hospital. I think of this often.
Sally is gone by summer. My mother says we’re better off without her, that she was fattening us up with all of her carb-heavy meals. She doesn’t sleep in my room, doesn’t say she’d be nowhere without me or my love. We are swimming in Lake Washington daily, even though there are rumors of sewage runoff and long-dead bodies recently surfaced. My mother says that swimming reminds her of Venezuela, Panama, or California, depending on the day. When she starts a conversation with the lifeguard—a younger black man with yellow sunglasses and perfect teeth—she shoos me off with a hand. I go to our towel and imagine starting my own conversation with someone on this beach. I could tell my mother to shoo, too. I could tell her that it’s about time that she play dead.
My life is not replete, but then it isn’t destitute either. I play soccer. I play basketball. I have friends who I call best friends. I know my way around Seattle’s downtown, am able to go there alone if I am willing to ferry over in the morning so I’m back before dark. In class, I get good grades. I like to read, but not as much as some of the other students. I don’t have a bike or an Xbox but I do have a skateboard and a PS2. My mother trusts me. My mother cries at my 6th grade graduation because she is proud. I am not embarrassed by this. Other parents are crying, too.
My mother is quiet for a few years. She does not date, does not sit in the living room crying or suggesting that we just up and leave, visit all of the national parks or make a reverse trip down the coast. At meals, she asks about my days and then nods. If I ask about hers, she keeps nodding. I spend more time with my friends because her quiet makes me anxious. My mother is not usually so resigned. She likes to shout and sing and dance when certain songs come on our radio. On weekends, now, she stays in bed most of the day. Occasionally, I catch her in there during the week, too, having skipped out on work.
“Did you work today?” I ask.
“Can you get me some soda?”
In the summer before high school, she begins to stand more often.
“I miss being young,” she says, putting her hands on her hips and scowling at me. “You’ve got a lot of luck right now. You can sneak out, drink, smoke pot, and no one will bat an eye because that’s what you’re supposed to do. Do you realize how good you’ve got it?”
She begins to sneak out, to drink and smoke pot as though there were anyone trying to prevent it. One night, someone knocks on the door at 2 AM. When I open it, a bearded man has my mother caught in his arms as though he has just saved her from some catastrophe.
“You know this lady?” he asks. “This your mom?”
I let him into the house, showing him where he can put her down.
“She was dancing on the pool table down at Frank’s,” the man says, running his hands through his beard. “Fell off, but should be fine. It took her half an hour to tell me your address. Didn’t even say that she had a kid here.”
My mother stretches her limbs outward and blinks slowly at both of us. “Oh, sweetie,” she says, “I just wanted some fun. You know how I’ve been missing fun. You have all the luck.”
The man looks at me with a face that bleeds apology. He will go to his friends later and say that this lady took 30 minutes to remember her own home, that she forgot that she even had a kid there at all. I want to break the expression from his face. He gives a weak smile and then turns toward the door. “I’m sorry,” he says.
When he gets down to the driveway and into his car, I almost chase after him. I want to tell him about my mother’s soft lies. Didn’t he know that someone could say something and mean something else? Wasn’t he aware that she could say that she was childless and still have me here? That you could be contradictory without being a hypocrite?
My mother sleeps on the couch. I sleep on the floor beside her. In the morning, she helps me register for my 9th grade classes and asks if I’d like to take a drive down the coast.
We no longer cling together like we used to. I know that the barnacle baby is the one she wants to leave behind, the one that she likes to pretend never came at all. I lay low, driving only when she wants me to drive. She sings loud, dons a cowboy hat that she picked up in Redding, and tells me about how each place we go has changed over the last 14 years. She tries not to bring up Richie or Sally but their words still emerge, drifting through the car before pulling out the open windows. The other lovers hang around, too, joining in the backseat and telling stories through my mother’s mouth, stories that try to push me away or bring me in.
I am no longer crying. I do not need my mother like I once did. She still worries about me but is less strained by her own concern. She does not mind that I wander Little Italy while she sits at the wharf, nor is she bothered when I come back. In motels, we speak during commercial breaks and when the light is switched off but we aren’t yet sleeping.
When we reach Ventura, my mother sprawls out on the beach and says she wishes we had more time. “Imagine if we could make it all the way to Caracas. You could see the place that you were born.” She grabs handfuls of sand and lets it loose across her forehead. “Imagine how strange it would be, you seeing where your whole life began.”
I am wrapped around myself, trying to keep the evening’s cool from infiltrating my light jacket. She wants me to speak, to indicate that my life has been worth her journey from there to here. I say nothing, though, watching the sunlight spread like broken yolk across the riptide. We do not need to reach Caracas to ask ourselves these questions.
My mother yawns and then grabs my hand. “There’s nowhere I’d rather be than right here. You know that, right? You know that I wouldn’t give you up for the world? You’re my best friend—the best friend I’ve ever had.”
Seagulls sweep across the sky. People build bonfires and uncork wine bottles just north of us. I take my shoes off and pour the accumulated sand from them. Had it been so long since we’d last been here? Was this not the same sand reshaped? the same water stirred?
“I know,” I say, even though I don’t. My mother means it and she doesn’t. She is telling a soft lie to keep from breaking our hearts.
I lie back, shading my eyes against the sun. My mother starts to speak but doesn’t. Then she lets my hand drop back into the sand.
“I’m going to dip my feet,” she says, standing and running toward the water. She could stay out there for hours, kicking at the waves and letting her legs go numb against the Pacific. She could wander toward the others and tell them that she had been here once, childless and happy. They might be laughing, drinking, glancing occasionally to where I am. My mother might confess my presence, or she might keep me tucked away, if only through sunset. Play dead, barnacle baby. This is my life without you.
But then she will come back. We will go to the boardwalk for fried pickles and ice cream. She will say she’s forgotten so much and nothing, too. The garbage in the sand, the color of the sunset. When we pass by other people, we will both imagine how we could vanish ourselves to them, to one another. It will be a twilight reverie, a daydream both feared and desired. When we return to the car, tired and together, we will be reminded that there is more than one way to say I love you. Night will come quickly—a wave that fails to break, spilling outward instead—and we will drive north again.
About the Author:
Scott Broker is a writer originally from Colorado living now in Seattle, WA. His work has appeared or is soon forthcoming in Sonora Review, Entropy, American Chordata, Barrelhouse Blog, and Driftwood Press, among others. He holds a BA in English and Philosophy from Seattle University, where he edited the annual journal, Fragments. He can be found at http://www.scottjbroker.com
About All Accounts:
All Accounts and Mixture is an annual online feature celebrating the work of LGBTQ writers and artists. For this series, we seek work from authors who self-identify as “queer,” while acknowledging that this designation is subjective and highly personal. Our goal is to provide a forum for writers whose voices might be mis- or underrepresented by the literary mainstream.