We were headed for the Verrazano Bridge, caught in traffic. It was several weeks before Thanksgiving, which I remember because there was a massive billboard hanging from a crumbling brick building off the highway in Sunset Park. It depicted an enormous cartoon turkey standing, feathers unfurled, on a dining room table, a family of six seated around it.
Though we were well into fall, the heat and gas from the cars rose up in waves; looking out it could have been a summer day, except for the trees lining the blocks off the highway, their branches reaching up, sky slipping through brittle claws. Ramon's hands were tight on the steering wheel. And Harriet, sweet Harriet, sat behind me, panting in my ear.
"Honey." I reached back to calm her. "Settle down, darling."
We were dropping her off at her favorite place on earth: my parents' house in Northern Virginia where she ate scraps of grassfed venison and beef tenderloin, fetched tennis balls on the lawn, and where at night my father carried her, curled in his arms, up and down the stairs.
We were leaving Harriet and heading down south, to North Carolina, for a training session at a national adoption agency.
Ramon's hands went white, then relaxed, the color returning to them, as if pigment were being poured into the casing of his skin.
"We're not in a hurry." I craned my neck to see ahead.
"No," he said.
"We can just get there whenever."
"That's not really true. I mean, we need to be in Raleigh by six."
"We've got plenty of time," I said.
Ramon looked at me and laughed. "We don't actually. And since when did you become so easygoing?"
"I am willing it so," I told him, but inside? I did the math like I always did the math, though I am not a math person: It's 7:30 a.m. If we get to Virginia by noon, and stay fifteen minutes, we'll be fine. Other math: If I have a baby right this minute, I will be seventy-six when the child is my age now. But I am not pregnant, so I have to add on nine months and change the equation: if I get pregnant right this minute. But of course, I'm not getting pregnant. Which is why we're taking this trip in the first place.
Four hours and fifteen minutes after leaving Brooklyn, we pulled up in front of my parents' house, once my home, but now my home is a fourth-floor walk-up in Brooklyn. Not for the first time, I realized that the sweep of their corner yard and the way the hill at the front led around back to a rose stone patio with wrought iron tables and cushioned chairs, a barbecue flanking the house ringed by azaleas and hydrangea bushes and, marking the end of the property, a large woodpile to feed the fireplace in winter, were all too enviable. I saw myself as a child running in the sprinkler out back, a rainbow arcing in the mist. I saw Lucy trying to catch hold of me and I shielded my eyes from the memory.
When had I stopped disparaging my parents' way of life and had instead begun to covet it?
Ramon parked on the street, leaving enough room for my mother to zoom out of the garage, as she often did, without hitting our car. Madame Harriet took the quickest of pisses before she bounded up the lawn to the front door and sat, tail wagging, waiting for my mother to let her in. In and out of this door, summer nights thick with lightning bugs. Winter, trailing in snow from the treads of our Moon Boots. The soft white light of the kitchen.
"Hello!" The door swung open. Harriet reared up on her back legs, squealing and snorting. And there she was:
"Hey, Mom." I entered the hallway.
"Joanne!" Ramon embraced her.
"You two want some lunch before you get back on the road?" my mother asked.
"Quickly," I said.
"Thank you so much for taking Harriet." Ramon handed over the leash.
"Are you kidding? We love watching her. She's our granddog!"
I breathed in sharply at this, as we didn't have a grandkid to offer up, but a dog. Lucy, three years younger, was off teaching in South America. Or she was surfing there and building huts? Or scuba diving? Whatever she was doing, there didn't seem to be a deep commitment to family on her part. She'd lived away for over five years now, and I hadn't seen her in nearly three.
Lucy and I had had no falling-out to speak of, no argument that had divided us, and yet we rarely communicated now; we had not spoken in ages when we caught each other on the phone last week.
"Jesse?" I had heard birds squawking in the background; had there also been the sound of the ocean?
"Lucy!" I cried on hearing her voice. "How are you? Where are you?"
"Panama?" she said. "With a friend."
A parrot screamed in Spanish, ¿Dónde está la carne de res?
Last time we'd spoken, my sister had been in Costa Rica. Now, in Panama, she was doing some sort of community outreach with an animal refuge and making jewelry with disabled young mothers. All this she'd told me with a sigh of exhaustion, as if she'd acquired seventeen companies or traveled to the moon; and she was also helping this friend open a café specializing in Greek food. And she was surfing, too, which was why she had originally landed in Costa Rica. She had become a surfer, my sister, Lucy.
As she spoke I made a note to never send my hypothetical child to college in California.
My sister and I knew so little about each other now. The last time we'd talked I told her I was about to embark on my final fertility treatment. I hadn't followed up to tell her it was unsuccessful, and she hadn't called to find out. She was off, out there, somewhere; it was hard to fix an actual image of her that held still, that wasn't in motion.
My mother, however, was here before me, before a backdrop I knew well, but she too had become unrecognizable. My whole life, she'd worked, traveling for months at a time. It was our housekeeper, Claudine, who raised us by day. She kept her entire wallet stuffed in her brassiere and wore an Afro wig of fake, gleaming black hair that she would take off when she was in the house, revealing that her head was bald in parts, the remaining hair straightened, greased with pomade, and pinned back.
"Just one minute, let me make you a sandwich for the road," my mother said, as if she had been feeding me lunch and milk and cookies every day of my life.
"And coffee," I called after her, enabling her fantasy — and mine — that she had always been here just to serve me.
What is a mother? I have asked myself this often. As Ramon and I hauled back into the car, waving good-bye to my mother and Harriet, who didn't give a lick that we were leaving, I thought about my own mother's arrivals, her unpacking, Lucy and I anticipating our gifts. We sat cross-legged on her bed watching her remove her travel kits and her perfectly folded garments as we waited for our packages to emerge from the depths of her suitcase, which smelled of saffron, or cleaning solution, or used bookstores. She would then turn to face us. That was back when my mother let herself go out into the sun without the sunscreen that could protect her from a nuclear explosion, and her face was several shades darker, her nose and cheekbones sprinkled with the freckles I have inherited. Why, I wondered then, was the developing world, where I knew my mother went, always in the sun?
The gifts were regional and various: small woven baskets, iron figurines, wooden napkin holders carved into elephants and giraffes, a cloth envelope containing three clay beads. One particular time, she handed me a small package folded in a wrinkled, waxy brown paper bag and wrapped in one of her long peasant skirts. Inside were several copper bracelets.
"They're pretty," I'd told my mother. But in truth I didn't like them. What I really wanted was a dangling metal heart suspended on a golden chain, tilted on its side, like my Andy Gibb–loving babysitter wore. I didn't want what was for purchase in a marketplace in Africa.
Now I wonder how she could have left us for so long, what that was like for her.
"Bye," I yelled, watching my mother and Harriet in the front yard, her waving as we pulled away.
Ramon and I met in Italy when I was traveling there alone. I'd been working on my dissertation — a small portion was on gender and generational politics in contemporary Italy — which enabled me to receive grant money for the visit. I hadn't known when I planned the trip how anxious I'd be when traveling alone, securing hostels, acquiring proper currency. On night trains, fearing Gypsies, I wore my passport taped to my heart.
I have often imagined that I would never have met Ramon had I had companionship in those tired, dusty afternoons. In Rome, I slept in a hostel run by nuns. Ramon was visiting his mother in Terracina, not two hours from Rome, where he'd come to stay with friends, and he too was unaccompanied when we met in Santa Maria in Trastevere.
My mother's sadistic touristic rigor had put me off cathedrals altogether — villages across France must bear the heavy marks of my dragging footsteps as I was pulled in to investigate each town's church — but on this trip they offered relief from the heat, and I remember walking out of the sun and into the familiar musty darkness.
Why do synagogues contain light, churches darkness? I wondered at this, looking up at the dusky ceilings, the dark walls embossed in gold, the carved decorations. I crept into the chamber behind the altar, where their relic was stored: Saint Apollonia's skull encased in glass on a bed of red velvet.
There was a slot to insert a coin and when I dropped a lira in, the skull lit up and in the trembling church light I could see its grooves, the wavy lines separating the different parts of the cranium. The light did not last long and when it switched off I turned to see Ramon waiting behind me.
"Want to watch again?" He held a coin between his thumb and forefinger.
And then there it was, illuminated. Like a heartbeat, I thought.
I had not been thinking of a child's then. Once all the math I did was mere subtraction: I had been ill — I'd had cancer — but I had survived my illness. Perhaps I was thinking only of the surprising durability of my own heart.
That first night, Ramon spoke with the nuns at the convent where I had secured my little cot in the row of women, the bed's sheets pulled up tight like a scared child's, like the girls in the Madeline books, as I retrieved my bag from the convent. As I walked away, I knew the sisters were thinking that the stories they'd heard about American women — especially the Jewish ones — had been true. That night in Rome was the first time since I'd had my surgeries that I'd let someone touch me. The moonlight streamed in through the window, and when I lifted my shirt, tentatively, the line that bisected me, that jagged cut, was illuminated in the eerie gray light.
Ramon had paused. "Looks like you lost that catfight," he'd said before moving on.
After two days of pizza and pasta and coffee and ice cream and fried artichokes and street cafés and piazzas filled up with pigeons, and the exchange of stories about our separate lives in New York City, where Ramon now lived, we sat eating at a place in Campo de'Fiori. The restaurant boasted a choice of no less than 3,456 types of mozzarella and as far as I could tell not one of them was not the most delicious, creamy, delectable morsel I'd ever tasted. I was on not my first, second, or third "taste" when Ramon asked me if I'd like to meet his mother.
Beneath my deep uncomplicated love of the mozzarella, I liked Ramon. But I did not know if this was a lasting relationship. So, no, I was not dying, just then, to meet his mother. And yet I was intrigued. When Lucy and I traveled with my parents, they sought out a farmer to cook a typical meal for us, or a restaurant with four chairs in the mountains one couldn't find in a guidebook (or without one, it turns out), a special ceremony only locals — which somehow seemed to include us? — could attend. The goal: a true experience that legitimized the privilege of our tourism, rendering it authentic and therefore qualifying us as atypical Americans. When traveling, never turn down the opportunity to visit the home of an indigenous person, I thought, and so I told Ramon that I would love to meet his mother.
I thought of all the indigenous objects my mother had brought from her travels: a mask from Kenya that had been danced in a renewal ceremony and so had once come alive; a voodoo doll from Haiti with rusted pins in its back; a Moroccan woven basket. As we drove from the highway onto the dirt road that took us to Ramon's home in an agricultural section outside of the commune, I wondered what I could bring back, proof that I had traveled there.
Ramon explained that his mother, Paola, had grown up in Terracina, which is a town in the region of Lazio. "But she's just come back to live permanently only recently," he said.
Ramon had described his experience of living all over the world due to his Spanish father's work for BP. He told me about living in West Africa and Argentina, about Holland and Colombia, about how his mother held him so close, afraid of what lay beyond the confines of their company-provided homes.
"Where's your father?" I asked as we made our way down the pitted road.
"He's still in Jakarta," he said. "Now they're temporarily separated."
"Jakarta!" Did I even have an image to attach to this place? Had my mother ever brought me a gift — a hand-painted puppet made of paper, batik cloth — from there? I saw a city with the tallest building in the world. I saw women covered head to toe. "Temporarily?" I asked.
"Yes. It's just temporary." Ramon looked straight ahead.
I glanced at him, but he did not turn to catch my eye, and so I sat back, my bare feet on the dusty dashboard of his navy blue VW Golf (the car of a Nazi, my grandmother would have said, just as she told my father when he bought his used Volkswagen from a hippie in Arlington). The road was bumpy, and edged by high stone walls and swaying cane, so that we could see only straight ahead, an endless path of loose dirt and gray stones.
"Anyway, my mother's family is from here," Ramon continued. "Their old stone house is actually on our lot, but now there is the new house," he said. "Long story, but my mother told everyone in the village I was an architect. In order to keep up the ruse, she and my father asked me to design the house, like an architect would."
The car thumped along, and Ramon kept his eye on the road. I loved his profile. Like a man on a nickel.
He turned toward me. He stopped the car and took his hand off the gearshift. "Yes," he said, placing it on my knee. "She thought a graphic artist meant painting billboards, like the ones in Rome, which made her think that I would have to stand on a ladder to paint them, which of course meant that I could fall, and not only that I could fall, but that I most certainly would fall, and so, better to be an architect, leave New York, and come back to Terracina and build up the village."
"Wow," I said.
"Yes." Ramon removed his hand from my knee and began again to drive. "And so it was built and so the house makes no sense."
"You mean to tell me you actually drew up the plans and then someone just built the house?" A little ways up a truck was making its way toward us rather speedily, alarming, as there was only room for one car on this road.
"The point is, this is not what you would call an American family situation." This seemed to be an insult of some kind and I thought of the earlier girlfriends Ramon had told me he'd brought home to Paola: a Swiss ballerina, a Mexican painter, and most recently, a photographer from Brazil who had visited Java with Ramon. They had taken a trip into the jungle and had hiked down into a special cave and Ramon had opened an umbrella in front of his face to keep the bats away.
I looked at Ramon. What did he see when he looked at me, aside from my Americanness?
What he didn't seem to notice or care about was the pickup truck barreling toward us. "Also," he said, "you need to get rid of everything before you come in the house. Cigarettes, condoms, any kind of alcohol."
I pointed at the truck. "Alcohol? And all my firearms?"
Ramon put the car in reverse and began backing up at an uncomfortably rapid pace.
"Ramon!" I grabbed what I thought was the armrest on the door but turned out to be the manual window crank. It promptly fell off in my hand. "Shit." I felt my anxiety rise.
Ramon had backed into a little patch of flattened cane and we watched the truck scream by, its wheels rattling as they spit dust and stones at us.
"Close the window!" He reached over me.
"Here." I handed the plastic contraption over to Ramon.
He leaned over me again, sticking it back on with a focused push. "It has fallen off for years," he said. "You really have to be careful not to pull it at all, just push it, gently."
"Have you thought of fixing it?" I asked, afraid now to touch the handle.
"Why? If you handle it gently, properly, there's no problem," he said. "Anyway, listen, here's where you need to dump any cigarettes, condoms, anything of this nature."
"Yes, but I don't have any of those things."
"You sure?" Ramon pulled out onto the road. "Do you have any lingerie? Because my mother will go through your bags. She will search everything," Ramon said.
"First of all, had I backpacked through Europe alone, with lingerie, and met some Italian-Spanish guy who lives in New York who I'd been sleeping with for three nights, don't you think he might have seen it by now? The lingerie, I mean."
"And second of all? That's ridiculous," I said. "You're how old, thirty-five?"
He nodded again. "Well, thirty-three."
I was twenty-nine then.
He couldn't be serious, I thought as he slowed down to a stop in front of a large metal door, sea blue, a color I have only seen painted on toy boats and the twirled domes of the churches on Greek islands. Pink and pinker bougainvillea and twisted bright green vines climbed up the sides and over the doors.
Ramon took a key out of the clean ashtray. He went to the door and pushed it open: a flash of light and then the tips of citrus trees with their green waxy leaves, branches heavy with lemons and oranges. Then he returned to the car and drove us slowly inside, gravel crunching beneath our tires.
There was the house, the house that Ramon had planned, with a red clay roof and wooden shutters, opened wide (the windows, I soon realized, were sealed shut), and a marble staircase leading up to a small terrace overlooking the driveway. Mountains rose up, hazy, in the distance.
There at the top of those stairs stood a stout woman, her black hair swept up, her tanned arms folded across her chest. She was screaming in Italian, a language I could barely make out even when it was not being shot off like artillery fire. And then there was wild pointing, at the car, or at me, perhaps both, as I pushed my way out, as if I were defying gravity, and then, before I could greet her with an Italian Buongiorno! I'd been practicing — inwardly — in the car, there was more screaming. Ramon opened his arms wide, his head tilted as he walked up the steps to her and took her in his arms.
"Mama!" he said.
Her voice was muffled now, but still, she made wild gestures with her hands, even as she hugged her son. I could see a sliver of her mouth curve into a smile:
From The Mothers by Jennifer Gilmore. Copyright 2013 by Jennifer Gilmore. Excerpted by permission of Scribner.