The trouble with my mother began when I was fourteen. I always knew that she was different from other moms, from the moms of my friends—like Iggy’s mom, Beth, who was a happy homemaker and fantastic cook and everyone’s best friend in their cul-de-sac—but I cherished that difference. I was proud of it, I felt like it set us apart, made us special. If she was a little unorthodox now and then it was mostly a good thing, it created a kind of inspired, exhilarating time for us. For example, she took me out of school two months early nearly every year until I was in high school. She wanted to “bring me into the classroom of life,” as she always said, which meant long stays with friends of hers from show business in New York, Paris, or London.
I didn’t know what she was really up to. While she kept us busy with the museums and art galleries and sidewalk cafes in these endless cities, she was executing brief and doomed affairs with the men we were visiting. I didn’t see this other side of what was going on; so I wasn’t aware of how the break-ups were getting worse, year after year, and her state of mind too, a gradually deepening depression drowned in a rising tide of Percocet prescribed for pain and Dubonnet on the rocks.
It turned out that my adolescence was hard on her. When I was fourteen, it seemed like, almost overnight, I underwent the metamorphosis from a clumsy, bewildered, unlovely teen into something very close to what my mother had been like when she was cast in her first movies. Yet I was taller than she had been at that age; my blue eyes were larger and brighter and more compelling—daily she commented on these things with both a pride and a bitterness. She couldn’t hide the way she looked at me. It was complicated and I didn’t completely understand, but I knew there was loss in it, and there was resentment, and it hurt me.
Then she worsened, abruptly. I would come home after school and she would still be in bed, asleep. Or she would wake me up at 2 a.m. and drive us into LA, and suddenly forget why she had wanted to take the trip. There were times when she was gone without a word, leaving me on my own for days. I quietly took care of myself in the house, waiting for her to reappear. Sometimes hoping she wouldn’t.
The anger in her was terrible. More than once she lashed out at me physically, taking hold of my hair in a fist and wrenching it. Gouging my arm with her fingernails.
I knew I had to get help, but if I spoke to her about the way things were going it only made the anger worse. My mother had isolated herself over the years. Her parents had passed away before I was born, so I didn’t have grandparents to call on. She had friends in Park Heights and LA, but not the kinds of friends we could turn to for the help we needed.
One night I found her on the bathroom floor. She had taken all the antidepressants and painkillers in the medicine cabinet. After the 911 call, after the paramedics came, I rode with her in the back of the ambulance from the house to the hospital, holding her limp, damp hand. I was sure that she was dying. All my thoughts and feelings were scattered in the aftermath of little explosions that wouldn’t stop. Except one thing stayed with me. It played out, in my mind’s eye, there in the ambulance.
It was a scene from a few years ago. When we were happier.
Way past my bedtime, and Barbara Bellamy was on fire.
All night we had been dancing like crazy and singing out of tune to all of our favorite songs. At last I fell back onto the couch, red-faced and breathless. She put on the Kate Bush CD. This was something she had always loved to do—performing Kate Bush with uncanny accuracy, dancing exactly the way Kate had done it in the Seventies, with the same theatrical exaggeration and the weird, coy sexiness that was also disturbingly childlike.
My mother sang the impossible notes of the song “Wow” in a high, clear voice. She danced in a manic daze, spinning around and around, waving her arms, jumping on the couch and pulling me up to dance with her.
I cheered her on. I begged her for more. I loved her to death.
You’re not dead.
You’re alive, Tess. You survived.
Brightness opens my eyes. A blazing, pounding light that fades out from powerful pure white to bruised-blue afterimage, swimming.
The accident. I’m in Zach’s car; I’m in the passenger seat. It’s only been moments after everything happened.
There’s a stinging cut on my forehead below the hairline, and a frightening wash of blood trickles down from it in a stream across my face. My left foot is twisted down into the compressed wreckage of the front of the car. I suddenly feel afraid because I’m not sure I can feel...