Tell Me Something Real
Neighbors call us brats, unruly yelling monsters who pick fights with their children, litter their lawns, and scream at night when we should be asleep. We hear “Where is your mother?” daily, a question as boring as bedtime prayers. Adrienne, my older sister with the filthy mouth, always yells back, “She’s dying, so why don’t you shut the hell up?”
Adrienne is beautiful; her strawberry-blond hair and yellow sundress disguise her poisonous tongue. A cream puff with tacks inside. As we walk to the car, a tidy row of deceptively innocent-looking girls, I trail behind like an afterthought. I want to be a mixture of my sisters, gathering fragments and putting them together to create a mismatched whole. Unapologetic like Adrienne. Gentle like Marie.
Adrienne takes after our mother, inheriting her cornflower-blue eyes, high cheekbones, and full lips. She rides shotgun. Marie and I cram in the back, where I watch Mom’s hair whip around her face in the rearview mirror. She commits
her gaze to the road. I want her to glance up and blow me one of her rare and elusive air kisses. I rest my head against the window and evaluate the sky. Dark clouds cluster together as if they are scared to be alone.
San Diego is a strange mix of border town and resort. As we drive through the neighborhoods, I can identify the rich from the poor with ease. The run-down houses with cracked stucco blur into larger, freshly painted versions of themselves. Some streets are tree lined; others are dusty and filled with potholes. American flags wave at the major intersections, a constant reminder of the bicentennial and recent end of the Vietnam War. Fire hydrants have lost their bright yellow color in exchange for a more festive red, white, and blue. It’s 1976—the most significant year of the twentieth century. Fireworks trump the moon walk.
I love the car, the simple act of being in motion. Marie climbs over the emergency brake and turns on the radio. Sparing us from her beloved disco, Adrienne takes requests for stations, and we sing along to Neil Diamond and the Carpenters. I pretend that we’re taking a road trip. A vacation to the Grand Canyon or Lake Michigan or Mount Rushmore. I sing loudly.
“I love your voice, Vanessa,” Mom says.
Adrienne agrees. “You have a goddamn angel voice.”
The highway curves against the ocean, the shore so close that the salt water stings our eyes. Mom tells us that if we look hard enough, we might see dolphins beyond the
breaks. Marie and I stare for what feels like hours, dying to see the arched gray backs emerge for a brief moment before disappearing into the surf. Adrienne says that she’s more interested in the debris floating in the waves: logs, seaweed, a broken surfboard. She wants to see sharks and teeth.
We pull up to wait in line for the border crossing. Adrienne blasts the radio until guards glare at us. She stares right back, smiling as she runs her tongue over her teeth. She is seventeen and defiant, confident now that she’s going to be a senior. Mom looks at the guards and then at Adrienne before turning down the music. Being blond makes the crossing effortless. A guard waves us right through. We’re halfway there.
Mom says Tijuana looks like a city that’s been bombed. In the streets filled with pedestrians, our pace slows. We pass refrigerator boxes that house families. Children younger than me, younger than Marie, who is nine, run after the car, begging.
“Be grateful,” Mom says.
Marie leans against the window, needy, the youngest. “When are we going to eat?” she asks. She wants a bottle of Coke and a burrito.
Mom answers, “When we’re out of Tijuana, honey.”
My father told me that Mom’s symptoms began when she was nineteen. They were students at UCLA. She studied nursing, and he studied architecture. My mother had a tumor. A small, ugly bump on the back of her neck. Dad said
it was the only ugly thing about her. She explained that it was cancer and had it removed. Except for the faded scar, they almost forgot about it, until five months ago, when she told Dad about the leukemia. Now cancer possesses us; we are its hostages. We occupy a world of illness. Rooms filled with closed curtains, a kitchen sink overflowing with dirty dishes. We are ungrateful. We don’t appreciate the present or the past. We want more, and each unmet need germinates into a nagging resentment, multiplying like infected cells.
Laetrile is cyanide. Its origins seem harmless: apricot pits. It should be nutritional, like a vitamin or dietary supplement. A few years ago, a bigwig doctor declared it the miracle cure. Others call it poison. Thousands of people diagnosed with cancer—mostly blood cancers—go to Mexico for Laetrile treatment, staying in the clinics for days or weeks or months. It is illegal in the United States.
At first, we visited the Mexican clinic weekly, staying a night at a time. We learned a handful of phrases: “por favor” and “gracias” and “donde esta el baño?” Bilingual in medical terminology, Mom manages communication, freeing us from doctors and details. We like the children at the clinic because they are as loud as us. They don’t appear full of fear. They don’t pity us for having a sick mother. Their parents don’t banish us from their houses because Adrienne utters phrases like “shit-faced rat fucker.” Later I realize how easy it is to simplify people when you don’t share a common language. When you can’t ask questions and understand answers.
At the clinic, Mom has found a community among the patients. She improves her already excellent Spanish. There, nurses take care of her while we lounge in the courtyard looking out at the ocean as though on holiday.
I don’t want to believe Mom is as sick as the others. When we first came to the clinic, she looked so much better than the other patients. She had color in her cheeks and enough energy to shop in Ensenada. Now she doesn’t feel well enough to ride her bike; she stopped visiting with friends; she threw out her makeup. Mom is sick, but her illness is abstract. My parents are strained with each other, always tired and preoccupied with something larger than our family—the grief of living each day as though it could be the last.
Once we pass Tijuana’s crowded streets and finally arrive at the clinic, Mom disappears upstairs. We sling our backpacks over our shoulders and cut through the kitchen into the courtyard, pausing so Adrienne can sneak cold bottles of Coke from the fridge.
“We won’t be here long,” she says. “It’s just a blood-work day. An hour, tops.” She stretches her long legs on one of the chaise lounges and pulls out her arsenal of fashion magazines, pining for peasant blouses, wrap dresses, and jumpsuits. Like her idol, Stevie Nicks, she wraps her hair back with a scarf.
As I read one of my Agatha Christie mysteries, the riparian tree casts shadows across my body, a temporary tattoo
of leaves. I try to concentrate on the book, on the perils of the Orient Express, but the breeze flutters the pages, disturbing my already poor concentration. I never understand what happens to Mom upstairs, where they insert needle after needle into her arm, taking out blood and pumping in medicine. A war rages inside her, white blood cells against furious red, crowds cheering for life or death. A spectator sport too complicated to follow.
Marie can’t sit still, too busy with her virgin saints, torched maidens engulfed by flames, that have obsessed her since Mom’s diagnosis. We aren’t Catholic, not even churchgoers. Until the diagnosis, we only spoke of God in profane terms.
Copying Saint Lucy, a waif of a girl who carried her gouged-out eyes on a plate, Marie walks with her eyes closed, stumbling over calla lilies and gardenia bushes.
“Park it, Marie. I’m sick of this,” Adrienne says.
“Sick of what?” Marie pops open her eyes and blinks in the sun.
“All of your bumping around. Come here.” Adrienne pats the vacant chair next to hers. “I have something for you.” She spills out the remaining contents of her backpack.
“What do you have?”
Adrienne hands her a plastic box. “It’s a Make-Your-Own-Rosary kit.” She taps the box with her finger. “See the beads?” She kisses Marie’s cheek. “Now sit down.”
Marie organizes the beads by color, rattling off their
meaning: violet for penance, green for hope, red for love, and white for purity. She leaves the black beads in the box.
I point to the sky. “Here’s the storm.”
“You should do the weather on TV.” Adrienne smirks. “It’s like you’re psychic.”
I shoot her an I-told-you-so look when rain splatters her magazine. We can’t pack up fast enough. I hold my hand out to Marie. “Come on, you can play with that inside.”
In the lobby, we gawk at some newcomers, all so pale I can’t tell which one is the patient. An older woman, at least twenty years older than Mom, tries to catch my eye. I look away, disinviting greetings and questions. If we aren’t careful, they’ll join us on the couches and ask us about treatment and prognosis statistics, disregarding our ages, our obvious lack of medical degrees.
Mom returns twenty minutes later, almost normal looking, holding a brown paper bag. She pulls out four folded dresses, all made of the same crisp white cotton, like sheets. Each is embroidered with a different colored thread. One is decorated with birds. Another roses. She hands them to me. “Lupe made these for us.”
I run my hand over the cool fabric. “Can I go say thanks?” I ask.
She tucks my hair behind my ear. “You’re so thoughtful, sweetheart. But she’s too busy. Let’s go.”
We leave the clinic grounds and drive up the coast. I close my eyes and listen to the rain pound the windows, harder
and harder. The clouds are so dark, afternoon is indistinguishable from midnight. By the time we cross into San Diego, I can barely see across the street. Lightning creeps down from the sky to claim a giant sycamore tree. The storm snatches each branch of wood, and the entire time I fear it will take us.
Adrienne switches off the radio so we can concentrate on the road. I calm myself by mimicking the piano, tapping the notes of a Beethoven sonata on my thighs. I yearn to touch hard ivory keys rather than insubstantial flesh.
Mom hunches over the steering wheel. When she reaches for the gearshift, her hand trembles. I tap Adrienne’s shoulder and mouth, “Do something.”
“Pull over, Mom. I can drive.”
“You’ve never driven in a mudslide. I’m fine,” Mom says. “Remember, I grew up with hurricanes. This is just a thunderstorm.”
Water slips under the wheels, and we swerve from one side of the lane to the other.
“Come on, Mom. Let me do it,” Adrienne says. “You’re not strong enough.”
After she pulls over and turns off the car, everything is quiet except for the steady wrath of rain. I make out another fallen tree and worry about dangling power lines. Mom rests her forehead against the steering wheel, taking in deep, shaky breaths.
I ask her if she is okay. Mom meets my eyes in the
rearview mirror. “I wish none of this was happening. Let’s switch seats, Adrienne.”
Marie snuggles close to me. As soon as they open the doors, I feel the whoosh of wind and wet.
“Holy shit!” Adrienne yells once she sits safely behind the steering wheel. She turns the key and the car’s headlights make the road look grainy, like an old silent movie. Mom seems even worse in the light.
Adrienne pushes in the clutch and taps the gas. We lunge forward and then snap back into place. Mom squeezes her eyes closed. “The wheels are stuck in the mud. Marie, climb up front and do as I say. Come on, girls. We need to push.”
“There’s no way you can,” I say.
“Just do it.”
Her face hardens. End of discussion.
By the time we reach the rear of the car, we’re soaked through. Mom places her hands palms-down on the trunk. It is cold to the touch. Cars whiz by, and in that moment I understand why Mom’s hands tremble. We’re only a yard off the asphalt, and all I can think about is colliding with a hydroplaning semi. I watch Mom’s mouth move, but I can’t hear her over the traffic and thunder. Our feet sink into the mud, our shoes ruined. Adrienne lines up her palms next to mine.
“Push now!” Mom hollers. As I do, I feel every muscle in my body. The car doesn’t budge. We try again. My feet sink deeper into the mud. We push with all our might, two
more times before a colossal Buick pulls up next to us.
A pink-faced man climbs out of the car. His wife smiles through the closed window, and I get the sense that this act of kindness is her idea.
“Let me give you an extra set of hands.” He holds them up for us to appreciate, and I do, especially as I register his height.
With his added strength, the car rocks forward and I slam my weight into the metal, pushing until we heave all four wheels onto the pavement. Adrienne’s hair looks like Niagara Falls, the water cascades down with such force. Mom’s crumpled dress clings to her legs.
“We can’t thank you enough,” Mom says. Instead of looking at our Good Samaritan, she keeps eyeing me.
We slog back to our seats. Slowly, we join the other cars on the road and make our way home. Our block is completely dark.
Even Mom dashes to the front door. She holds out her hand for the keys, then struggles with the lock until the door blows open.
“Take off your shoes,” Mom says. “I don’t want to see a hint of mud on my carpet.”
I nod and take Marie’s hand. “Help me get the candles.” We rummage through the buffet’s drawers until I feel a box of matches, a bag of assorted tea lights, and tapers, plus flashlights.
“Here,” I say as I place a flashlight into her hand.
“Look at me.” Marie turns on the light beneath her chin, grinning like a jack-o’-lantern.
When I strike a match, the scent of sulfur fills my nose. Mom looks like she just had an infusion: pale and weak. Her favorite pink dress is destroyed, a smear of dirt and motor oil streaked across it like a beauty pageant sash. Mud graces her forehead and chin. She eyes each of us with an unreadable expression.
“How come I look like the last soldier in the Vietnam jungle and you three look beautiful? Just like you were swimming in the ocean.”
Dirt discolors my fingernails. I smell like a wet dog. “What do you mean?”
“You can’t understand. You’re just girls. I was your age once. People said I looked like Catherine Deneuve. Vanessa, change your clothes. That shirt is sheer and I can see your nipples. That pervert couldn’t stop staring when he helped with the car. He’d rather have a child than a grown woman. Disgusting.”
My hands fly to my chest. Before I can respond, she retreats to her room. I wonder when she’ll come out—if she’ll come out.
Adrienne takes the bag of candles from my hand. “Don’t worry about it. I can barely see your tiny boobies. She feels like shit, that’s all. Get changed and make sure Marie’s in some dry clothes, will you? I’ll make us something to eat.”
Marie stands in her room, already in her Virgin-Mary-blue nightgown, and makes shadow puppets on the wall.
“Watch me,” she says as her hands flutter like a butterfly and snap like a crocodile. “Will you do some?”
“In a minute,” I say, and follow the beam of my flashlight to the bathroom. Mom is right—even in the dark, my sodden shirt looks translucent. I’ve been wandering around the house like an amateur nudist. I peer into the mirror, searching for a hint of Mom and Adrienne’s beauty, finding nothing. Our resemblance is a transitory one. We share gestures and smiles, quick movements that can’t be pinned down. I turn on the hot water, and the steam creeps up the mirror until my reflection disappears. It takes forever to feel clean. I scrub the mud off my hands and run the washcloth up and down my skin, trying to erase the renegade specks of dirt.
Rain pummels the windows, and I wonder if a typhoon has ever descended upon Southern California. My flashlight illuminates Mom, wrapped in a towel, on her bed. “You want anything?” I ask.
She turns toward me. “I feel like I’ve been buried in a mudslide.”
Mom shakes her head when I offer to run a bath. I can’t reach her when she is this far away, so deep inside herself.
“Dad should be home soon.”
Relief softens her eyes. “Thank heavens. I’m going to rest a little while longer.” She rolls onto her side. Her shoulder blades protrude like fragile wings.
I find Marie in her room. She sits cross-legged with a
colorful book in her lap. “Want me to show you my new favorite?”
“Yeah.” I plop onto the floor next to her as she turns an oversize page.
“Saint Margaret was very beautiful. She glowed. If she walked in the dark, she lit up the streets like a human flashlight. And the best part . . .” Marie claps her hands enthusiastically, her cheeks bright. “She got eaten by a dragon. He gobbled her up—he was really the devil—but she was magic and made him split in half so she could come out. You’re Saint Cecilia. She could play any instrument she picked up, and she had a beautiful voice. Angels followed her everywhere. But they put her in a hot bath and cut off her head. Sorry.” She thumbs through the book and then flattens it so hard that the spine cracks. “And Adrienne’s this one, Saint Cristina the Astonishing. She could fly. Can you believe that name? I’d like to be astonishing.”
I don’t ask how Cristina died, knowing all the girls suffered horrifying fates. I reach over and tuck Marie’s hair behind her ears. She needs a haircut. “Want me to braid your hair like hers?” I point to the Margaret painting.
Marie nods and resumes her reading. I hug her close. Marie still has a girl’s body, and her small stature only emphasizes her youth. She takes after Dad, with the same warm eyes, round face, and high forehead. Plumper than Adrienne and me, Marie’s body consists of small circles, baby-faced with round cobalt eyes. She quit her soccer team
when Mom and Dad told us about the diagnosis, and now she looks even softer than before. I part her mermaid hair, weaving piece after golden piece until it falls down her back, a long fishtail.
The front door opens with a bang, and I hear the familiar thump of Dad’s heavy briefcase as it hits the floor—the telltale sign he’ll be sketching building designs after dinner. Marie hops up and pulls me down the hall, hollering, “Daddy! Daddy!”
“Iris! You and the kids okay? Can you believe this weather? Ash Street is flooded. No one knew what to do when the traffic signals went out. It took me ten minutes to go three blocks.”
Envy pays a brief visit as I watch Dad lift Marie off the ground. Adrienne lined the tabletops with candles, something straight from a movie set. Even Mom’s wedding candelabra is aflame.
Dad takes a deep breath when Mom walks in wearing one of Lupe’s hand-embroidered dresses. Roses climb the length of her torso, and she’s pulled her hair into a loose bun. “You look very pretty in the candlelight,” he says.
“Thank you, darling.”
Depositing Marie on the ground, he walks over and kisses her cheek. “I’m glad you got home safe and sound.”
“Barely, right, girls?”
“Yeah,” I say. The little hairs on the back of my neck rise to attention. “It was rough.”
Mom smiles at Dad. “Now that you’re home, I can put the day behind me.”
“Thanks to the rain. If the power hadn’t gone out, I’d still be at the office. Richard thinks we’re going to miss the deadline. What’s the plan for dinner?”
“I made sandwiches,” Adrienne says. “Salad too.”
“It’s a picnic, and a fancy one,” Dad says. “Let’s eat.”
I join Adrienne in the kitchen. “Nice look,” she says. I’ve changed into sweats and an oversize black T-shirt covered with dancing piano keys, a favorite from music camp. “I definitely can’t see your boobies in that.”
I pass out sandwiches, and Adrienne chatters away as she scoops fruit onto Marie’s plate. Mom recounts the drive home, comparing it to her hometown storms back in Charleston. “You would have been proud of the girls,” she says to Dad. “They were very brave. And strong. You should have seen us pushing the car.”
The lights flicker on and the phone rings, announcing the return of electricity. Dad answers and runs his hand through his hair. “I know the power’s back, but I can’t reach the freeway with the flooded roads.”
I hear the sound of an insistent voice come through the line. Dad regards us with a concerned expression. Mom tenses in her seat, staring at him with a desperate look.
“I brought the plans home and they’ll be done by the morning. We’ll have time to run through the presentation, Richard. I assure you.” He turns his back to us. “I’m well
aware that I can’t work on the model at home. I’ll come in early. Name the time.”
“Who won?” Adrienne asks when he hangs up the phone.
I watch Mom watch Dad. This isn’t the first time we’ve witnessed one of his negotiations. His boss usually wins, reminding Dad of deadlines and bonuses, of how the work can only be done at the office with the entire team present. The firm depends on him—as if we don’t. Sometimes I want to grab the phone and remind his perpetually sweaty boss about Mom and cancer and needles and the clinic. It shouldn’t take a flash flood for Dad to stay home.
“Me,” he says. “I’m home until five in the morning. God, forgive me, I completely forgot—what’d the doctor say about your tests?”
Mom closes her eyes and takes in a deep breath. Even the candles still in anticipation.
“Iris,” he says, “what is it? What’s wrong?”
I watch the color drain from her cheeks. She opens her mouth to speak, but closes it again. She looks at each of us, and when her eyes meet mine, I hold on, knowing something is about to change, something irreversible. Our tear ducts race, our eyes filling.
She looks down at the table. “I’m terminal.”
I swear the blood in my veins pauses. I hear it churn, the blood working its way from my heart to my fingertips. I feel my heartbeat where my palms bruised from pushing the car.
Adrienne drops her fork, but it is Marie who speaks first.
“You’re going to die.” I marvel at the surety of her tone, not at all questioning. I have seven years on her, but lack her certainty.
I can’t look at Mom—or any of them. My eyes wander around the room in search of a safe place to rest, somewhere quiet, but the rain continues to pound and I watch water seep through a windowpane.