Purity in Oakland
"Oh pussycat, I'm so glad to hear your voice," the girl's mother said on the telephone. "My body is betraying me again. Sometimes I think my life is nothing but one long process of bodily betrayal."
"Isn't that everybody's life?" the girl, Pip, said. She'd taken to calling her mother midway through her lunch break at Renewable Solutions. It brought her some relief from the feeling that she wasn't suited for her job, that she had a job that nobody could be suited for, or that she was a person unsuited for any kind of job; and then, after twenty minutes, she could honestly say that she needed to get back to work.
"My left eyelid is drooping," her mother explained. "It's like there's a weight on it that's pulling it down, like a tiny fisherman's sinker or something."
"Off and on. I'm wondering if it might be Bell's palsy."
"Whatever Bell's palsy is, I'm sure you don't have it."
"If you don't even know what it is, pussycat, how can you be so sure?"
"I don't know — because you didn't have Graves' disease? Hyperthyroidism? Melanoma?"
It wasn't as if Pip felt good about making fun of her mother. But their dealings were all tainted by moral hazard, a useful phrase she'd learned in college economics. She was like a bank too big in her mother's economy to fail, an employee too indispensable to be fi red for bad attitude. Some of her friends in Oakland also had problematic parents, but they still managed to speak to them daily without undue weirdnesses transpiring, because even the most problematic of them had resources that consisted of more than just their single off spring. Pip was it, as far as her own mother was concerned.
"Well, I don't think I can go to work today," her mother said. "My Endeavor is the only thing that makes that job survivable, and I can't connect with the Endeavor when there's an invisible fisherman's sinker pulling on my eyelid."
"Mom, you can't call in sick again. It's not even July. What if you get the actual flu or something?"
"And meanwhile everybody's wondering what this old woman with half her face drooping onto her shoulder is doing bagging their groceries. You have no idea how I envy you your cubicle. The invisibility of it."
"Let's not romanticize the cubicle," Pip said.
"This is the terrible thing about bodies. They're so visible, so visible."
Pip's mother, though chronically depressed, wasn't crazy. She'd managed to hold on to her checkout-clerk job at the New Leaf Community Market in Felton for more than ten years, and as soon as Pip relinquished her own way of thinking and submitted to her mother's she could track what she was saying perfectly well. The only decoration on the gray segments of her cubicle was a bumper sticker, at least the war on the environment is going well. Her colleagues' cubicles were covered with photos and clippings, but Pip herself understood the attraction of invisibility. Also, she expected to be fi red any month now, so why settle in.
"Have you given any thought to how you want to not-celebrate your not-birthday?" she asked her mother.
"Frankly, I'd like to stay in bed all day with the covers over my head. I don't need a not-birthday to remind me I'm getting older. My eyelid is doing a very good job of that already."
"Why don't I make you a cake and I'll come down and we can eat it. You sound sort of more depressed than usual."
"I'm not depressed when I see you."
"Ha, too bad I'm not available in pill form. Could you handle a cake made with stevia?"
"I don't know. Stevia does something funny to the chemistry of my mouth. There's no fooling a taste bud, in my experience."
"Sugar has an aftertaste, too," Pip said, although she knew that argument was futile.
"Sugar has a sour aftertaste that the taste bud has no problem with, because it's built to report sourness without dwelling on it. The taste bud doesn't have to spend five hours registering strangeness, strangeness! Which was what happened to me the one time I drank a stevia drink."
"But I'm saying the sourness does linger."
"There's something very wrong when a taste bud is still reporting strangeness five hours after you had a sweetened drink. Do you know that if you smoke crystal meth even once, your entire brain chemistry is altered for the rest of your life? That's what stevia tastes like to me."
"I'm not sitting here puffing on a meth stem, if that's what you're trying to say."
"I'm saying I don't need a cake."
"No, I'll find a different kind of cake. I'm sorry I suggested a kind that's poison to you."
"I didn't say it was poison. It's simply that stevia does something funny—"
"To your mouth chemistry, yeah."
"Pussycat, I'll eat whatever kind of cake you bring me, refined sugar won't kill me, I didn't mean to upset you. Sweetheart, please."
No phone call was complete before each had made the other wretched. The problem, as Pip saw it—the essence of the handicap she lived with; the presumable cause of her inability to be effective at anything—was that she loved her mother. Pitied her; suffered with her; warmed to the sound of her voice; felt an unsettling kind of nonsexual attraction to her body; was solicitous even of her mouth chemistry; wished her greater happiness; hated upsetting her; found her dear. This was the massive block of granite at the center of her life, the source of all the anger and sarcasm that she directed not only at her mother but, more and more self-defeatingly of late, at less appropriate objects. When Pip got angry, it wasn't really at her mother but at the granite block.
She'd been eight or nine when it occurred to her to ask why her birthday was the only one celebrated in their little cabin, in the redwoods outside Felton. Her mother had replied that she didn't have a birthday; the only one that mattered to her was Pip's. But Pip had pestered her until she agreed to celebrate the summer solstice with a cake that they would call not-birthday. This had then raised the question of her mother's age, which she'd refused to divulge, saying only, with a smile suitable to the posing of a koan, "I'm old enough to be your mother."
"No, but how old are you really?"
"Look at my hands," her mother had said. "If you practice, you can learn to tell a woman's age by her hands."
And so—for the first time, it seemed—Pip had looked at her mother's hands. The skin on the back of them wasn't pink and opaque like her own skin. It was as if the bones and veins were working their way to the surface; as if the skin were water receding to expose shapes at the bottom of a harbor. Although her hair was thick and very long, there were dry-looking strands of gray in it, and the skin at the base of her throat was like a peach a day past ripe. That night, Pip lay awake in bed and worried that her mother might die soon. It was her first premonition of the granite block.
She'd since come fervently to wish that her mother had a man in her life, or really just one other person of any description, to love her. Potential candidates over the years had included their next-door neighbor Linda, who was likewise a single mom and likewise a student of Sanskrit, and the New Leaf butcher, Ernie, who was likewise a vegan, and the pediatrician Vanessa Tong, whose powerful crush on Pip's mother had taken the form of trying to interest her in birdwatching, and the mountain-bearded handyman Sonny, for whom no maintenance job was too small to occasion a discourse on ancient Pueblo ways of being. All these good-hearted San Lorenzo Valley types had glimpsed in Pip's mother what Pip herself, in her early teens, had seen and felt proud of: an ineffable sort of greatness. You didn't have to write to be a poet, you didn't have to create things to be an artist. Her mother's spiritual Endeavor was itself a kind of art—an art of invisibility. There was never a television in their cabin and no computer before Pip turned twelve; her mother's main source of news was the Santa Cruz Sentinel, which she read for the small daily plea sure of being appalled by the world. In itself, this was not so uncommon in the Valley. The trouble was that Pip's mother herself exuded a shy belief in her greatness, or at least carried herself as if she'd once been great, back in a pre-Pip past that she categorically refused to talk about. She wasn't so much off ended as mortified that their neighbor Linda could compare her frog-catching, mouth-breathing son, Damian, to her own singular and perfect Pip. She imagined that the butcher would be permanently shattered if she told him that he smelled to her like meat, even after a shower; she made herself miserable dodging Vanessa Tong's invitations rather than just admit she was afraid of birds; and whenever Sonny's high-clearance pickup rolled into their driveway she made Pip go to the door while she fled out the back way and into the redwoods. What gave her the luxury of being impossibly choosy was Pip. Over and over, she'd made it clear: Pip was the only person who passed muster, the only person she loved.
This all became a source of searing embarrassment, of course, when Pip hit adolescence. And by then she was too busy hating and punishing her mother to clock the damage that her mother's unworldliness was doing to her own life prospects. Nobody was there to tell her that it might not be the best idea, if she wanted to set about doing good in the world, to graduate from college with $130,000 in student debt. Nobody had warned her that the figure to pay attention to when she was being interviewed by Igor, the head of consumer outreach at Renewable Solutions, was not the "thirty or forty thousand dollars" in commissions that he foresaw her earning in her very first year but the $21,000 base salary he was offering, or that a salesman as persuasive as Igor might also be skilled at selling shit jobs to unsuspecting twenty-one-year-olds.
"About the weekend," Pip said in a hard voice. "I have to warn you that I want to talk about something you don't like to talk about."
Her mother gave a little laugh intended to be winsome, to signal defenselessness. "There's only one thing I don't like to talk about with you."
"Well, and that is exactly the thing I want to talk about. So just be warned."
Her mother said nothing to this. Down in Felton, the fog would have burned off by now, the fog that her mother was daily sorry to see go, because it revealed a bright world to which she preferred not to belong. She practiced her Endeavor best in the safety of gray morning. Now there would be sunlight, greened and goldened by filtration through the redwoods' tiny needles, summer heat stealing through the sleeping porch's screened windows and over the bed that Pip had claimed as a privacy-craving teenager, relegating her mother to a cot in the main room until she left for college and her mother took it back. She was probably on the bed practicing her Endeavor right now. If so, she wouldn't speak again until spoken to; she would be all breathing.
"This isn't personal," Pip said. "I'm not going anywhere. But I need money, and you don't have any, and I don't have any, and there's only one place I can think to get it. There's only one person who even theoretically owes me. So we're going to talk about it."
"Pussycat," her mother said sadly, "you know I won't do that. I'm sorry you need money, but this isn't a matter of what I like or don't like. It's a matter of can or can't. And I can't, so we'll have to think of something else for you."
Pip frowned. Every so often, she felt the need to strain against the circumstantial straitjacket in which she'd found herself two years earlier, to see if there might be a little new give in its sleeves. And, every time, she found it exactly as tight as before. Still $130,000 in debt, still her mother's sole comfort. It was kind of remarkable how instantly and totally she'd been trapped the minute her four years of college freedom ended; it would have depressed her, had she been able to afford being depressed.
"OK, I'm going to hang up now," she said into the phone. "You get yourself ready for work. Your eye's probably just bothering you because you're not sleeping enough. It happens to me sometimes when I don't sleep."
" Really?" her mother said eagerly. "You get this, too?"
Although Pip knew that it would prolong the call, and possibly entail extending the discussion to genetically heritable diseases, and certainly require copious fibbing on her part, she decided that her mother was better off thinking about insomnia than about Bell's palsy, if only because, as Pip had been pointing out to her for years, to no avail, there were actual medications she could take for her insomnia. But the result was that when Igor stuck his head in Pip's cubicle, at 1:22, she was still on the phone.
"Mom, sorry, gotta go right now, good-bye," she said, and hung up.
From Purity by Jonathan Franzen. Copyright 2015 by Jonathan Franzen. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.