I recall only one sentence that she said. She said it all the time. Every day was an occasion. If she had to be away on a shoot, she said it to my father. If I had to take cough syrup, she said it to me. She said it to the family dog before his operation. It was her wisdom. She said it with pride. What my mother said was: You won’t even feel it.
I was born in the city. My father was a bank man, my mother starred in soaps. We lived like the famous in a house by the park and I woke to a vase of fresh tulips each day. We had long hallways and long tablecloths. My mother had rooms full of clothes. So many strangers gave us presents that we had a man to pen our thank-yous. Photographers slept outside the house.
One day when I was five, my mother was hit by a car and she felt it and she died and we felt it. We went away for a while, paid off our debts from afar, tried to live without her. We came back to the city. My father’s business spoiled dollar by dollar. We lived on her money. Each year we grew poorer. We sold the house and moved into a smaller house and then into a large rented apartment, then into a smaller one. We moved around the city, fitting into smaller and smaller spaces, each time carrying our valuables up and down stairways—the chests, the paintings, the family china, the sofas, the wardrobes. We finally landed in the smallest studio with the dog and our little cat and all of our furniture and light fixtures and jewelry. We laid out the expensive rugs one on top of another on the floor. We hung the paintings floor to low ceiling. It was in this room that my father became sick and couldn’t work. We sold our things off one by one, peeled up a rug or took down a picture, and in this way we paid the medical bills and the other bills and we lived, somewhat. When the floor and walls were bare and the room was mostly cleared out, my father had one more thing to tell me. Early in our marriage, he said, your mother ran off with someone else and she came back pregnant. You are not my daughter.
I felt that too.
I was sixteen that year.
Today I thought about the man who raised me because of a man who sat down next to me on the train. He had a strangely shaped head. It seemed to be almost dented a little. He kept to himself on his seat and I to myself on my seat. We regarded one another.
Later I woke to an empty seat beside me and we pulled into the Syracuse depot. I looked out the window at the few frail people waiting for a train the other way, a strip of woman and her tiny, mittened girl. Suitcases on the bench. And there, I saw him, the man with the head. He’d gotten off the train. He was standing flush-faced in the chill, his suitcase on the platform, his hat crushed in his hand like a wad of paper, the other hand curled around the handle of a briefcase. A businessman. A man with a two-week vacation that he gets no matter what. If he dies and hasn’t used his two weeks, they wrench open his coffin and put the money inside.
But who would want to waste a vacation on a place like that, a town so cold and so small, jammed into the countryside like a sliver? Part of a train ticket, an extra included in the fare, is that they’ll move you even if you don’t know where you are or how to get anywhere. If you are too exhausted or brainless, if your brain has been killed off and destroyed, if you are dead, they will still transport you, as long as your ticket has not expired. That’s how that man looked at that moment with the splinter of Syracuse stuck in his head. He looked a little like the man I had called father most of my life—not the head, my father’s was a perfect egg, but because he had the same false energy of someone who does not yet know they are down for the count. Then the train was pulling out. He followed it, first with his eyes, then with his body, turning as it went. I closed my eyes. I didn’t want to see him left behind.