Joyland

New York |

My Father's Death is a Law School Graduate

by Kate Axelrod

edited by Kyle Lucia Wu

I see her at the airport before she sees me — she alternates between checking her phone and looking around — and I feel a pang of affection or something like pity watching my mother in the wild this way. For the last three years we’ve only spent time together in controlled settings: my childhood home on the south shore of Long Island or a Chinese restaurant half a mile east on Sunrise Highway.

I’ve been taller than her since I was twelve, and for my whole adolescence I felt long and un-gainly, envious of the way my mother moved her petite body through the world in swift, effort-less movements. She was meticulous about her appearance until my father died — her hair was colored every five weeks so not a glimpse of gray could be detected, she’d run a handful of miles on the treadmill in the early morning before school, and she kept a pair of tweezers in the cup holder of the car, plucking out errant eyebrows in traffic. Today her hair is threaded with silver and she is picking absently at the skin around her fingernails. A large navy suitcase sits at her feet and one of those floral quilted tote bags hangs from her shoulder.

“Why did you bring such a huge bag?”

“That’s a lovely way to say hello.”

“Sorry,” I say, “it’s just, you’re going to have to check it and it’s such a pain.”

“What difference does it make? And how am I supposed to fit all my clothes into such a tiny little thing?” She asks, gesturing to a rounded titanium suitcase that I borrowed from my roommate. We walk toward security and I stare at the maze of people ahead of us in line, slipping off boots and untying sneakers. I’m unnerved by the intimacy of bare feet and fraying socks — the toenails of an older man long and sharp, like claws.

***

Once we’re up in the air my mother opens her purse in the middle seat and takes out an issue of Educational Leadership and a ziplock bag filled with sliced Macintosh apples and baby carrots.

“You look a little pale, honey. Do you feel okay? I have some Ibuprofen if you want, or blush?”

“I’m fine,” I say. I take off my sneakers. “Also, no one wears blush anymore. And we’re about to go be on the beach for four days. And we’re on a plane.”

“You always want to look your best,” she says. “You never know what could happen on this plane. Actually, Laura Stein’s daughter met her husband on a flight from Chicago to New-ark. It sounds like a romantic comedy but I swear to God it’s true. They were seated next to each other and just hit it off. One of those lucky stories.” My mother is careful with her words; lucky implies that love is a random and fortuitous occurrence.

The reality is that I am seeing someone. I met Gabriel, a physician’s assistant, on Tinder two-and-a-half months ago, but I can’t bring myself to tell my mother. Part of my reluctance is rooted in some adolescent need to maintain a sense of privacy (she used to sift through my trashcan when I was a teenager, unfolding receipts and looking for clues about my life like a suspicious, jilted lover), but I’ve also had so many three-month relationships that I want to hold out a little longer before telling my family, like waiting until the second trimester when the likelihood of miscarriage has diminished.

I plug headphones into the armrest beside me and listen to the blur of static between channels. The man sitting next to me has a shock of red hair and wears a jade ring on his middle finger. I don’t know if he’s student or teacher but he’s working on a Powerpoint about earth-quakes, dragging 3D boxes toward each other and then away, fault lines sliding in opposite direction so the earth cleaves apart. Until two years ago I was at Fordham getting my PhD in American Studies and now I’m ABD, ostensibly taking a break after the death of my father, but I hope the passing time makes it clear that I’m not planning to go back. I’m still getting used to the absence of work, that endless reading, which, in its wake, has left a peculiar kind of anxiety. But I felt as though I were suffocating in that beige-colored library carrel day after day, staring at dark, inky prints of American war monuments and documenting their subtle differences. I’d wanted to understand how a political climate affects the ways in which we honor and memorialize our fallen. But it was too much death and grieving, so I returned to my adolescent love of acting, at least for the time being. A joke, my mother assumed—her exact words were, “Is this your idea of a joke?”—but so far I’d been doing okay. Just this year I made five thousand dollars as the quirky friend in a yogurt commercial and $1300 as the woman in a tampon commercial who would never again use the store brand option and risk ruining her best friend’s engagement party.

I spend seven dollars on three episodes of Mad Men, then promptly close my eyes. It will be the first time in years that my mother and I have spent this much time alone together. I was home for a week after the funeral, but there had been a constant flurry of rotating family, and my mother and I were each so lost in our own haze of grief that I barely remember us interacting at all. We were more like college students in the same dorm, walking past each other on the way to the bathroom, sipping lukewarm cups of coffee in the kitchen that someone else had brewed. But my mother won a raffle ticket at a Hadassah fundraiser, so here we are, on our way to Fort Lauderdale for a three-night, four-day, all inclusive, expense-paid trip.

The only other time we’ve gone to Florida was in 1990 to visit my great-aunt and uncle in Palm Beach and then afterward, an obligatory trip to Disney World. I remember little of the trip, only that I insisted on wearing at least one tie-dyed article of clothing at all times and the relentless sun on my back as I threw up onto the street outside the slightly droopy, wilted home of the Seven Dwarfs. My father weaving his fingers together, catching the vomit in his hands, as if to protect the sacred Disney sidewalk.

***

Outside the air is thick and steamy, the sky clouded over. Palm trees line the roads of the airport, their crowns wild and feathery. We walk a single block from the airport to the shuttle bus that will take us to the resort.

“Eliza, you’re still wearing your sweatshirt? Take it off. It’s probably ninety degrees out here.”

“I’m comfortable,” I say, “It’s fine.”

“That’s impossible. Only a crazy person would be comfortable in a sweatshirt in this heat.”

“But I’m not hot. Just because you are, doesn’t mean we experience heat in the same way.”

“Oh, please.”

Since my father’s death, I’ve developed this tendency to examine all behavior through what I imagine to be his perspective. An analyst for thirty-five years, what would he say witnessing the interactions between his wife and daughter? Likely he would comment on my attempt to individuate from my mother, to separate. And her need to envelop me. Or, he might even say, to devour me.

***

We are outside on the beach, my mother sitting upright on a plastic chair, reading Educational Leadership with a yellow highlighter perched between her teeth. She’s the principal of a middle school in Nassau County, a position that she has so wholly internalized that when I had slumber parties as a child, she would stand at the threshold of the den, her voice booming, re-questing the attention of a dozen of my eleven-year-old friends. She’d remind us that in five minutes we’d all have to file into the bathroom to brush our teeth, and ten minutes later the lights would be turned out.

I’m resting next to my mother on a towel, kneading my chartreuse toenails into the sand as I skim the script for an audition I have next week. I am, as always, reading for the part of the idiosyncratic friend, rolling her eyes and complaining about her job as a librarian as the star laughs over an enormous bowl of salad. (Here my father would say, How interesting that right after your father dies you decide to switch careers, inhabit a world entirely unlike your own, perhaps a world in which your father is still alive).

Honey,” my mother says, “do you think I should get an S.T.D. test?” She says it as though she’s been practicing the words in her head. They come out rehearsed and deliberate: Ess-Tee-Dee.

“Excuse me?”

“I mean, that’s a thing you and your friends do, right?” Like some trendy drug in high school. You guys do whippets, right?

“Yeah, it’s not like ‘my friends’ though. Just any person who’s sexually active and responsible.”

“I just, you know, your father was the only person I’d ever been with until recently and…”

I am thirty-one and my father has been dead for three years and yet I feel incapable of having this conversation with my mother. On being forced to consider that she has had sex with anybody, let alone a person who is not my father.

“Yeah, I guess you should, then. I mean, it’s definitely the smart thing to do,” I tell her.

“But I don’t have to get an AIDS test, do I?”

Our familial roles had always been fixed and I understood this was—and had always been—a luxury. I had plenty of friends who grew up being the caretakers in their families, who cooked macaroni and cheese dinners for their little brothers and bathed them while their parents were at work. Gabriel’s mother was an alcoholic, and from the age of nine he’d wiped up vomit from the bathroom floor, fed her Advil and crushed ice when she was hungover.

“AIDS test? I would. I mean, you don’t have to. But I do. When I go to the doctor I just ask for one. It’s just a blood test like any other.”

My mother takes out a can of aerosol sunscreen and sprays the backs of her arms and legs, the scoop of her chest that is exposed above her bathing suit. “Take some.”

“I’m fine,” I say.

“You’ve been getting plenty of color. You should be careful. Don’t want to burn.”

“Yeah. Though I do have that wedding next weekend and would love to be nice and tan when I get back.”

“Remind me whose wedding?”

“Jeremy and Julia.”

“Oh right, Julia’s the boy?”

“She’s not ‘a boy’, Mom, she’s a woman. She transitioned, like, four years ago.”

“Okay fine, but she still has a you-know-what.”

“That’s irrelevant.”

“A primary sex organ is not irrelevant.”

“I can’t have this conversation again.”

“Oh please. You always act like I’m so conservative. I’m really, really not. I understand that gender is a ‘social construction’, I think it’s so wonderful that things are changing. And plus, I had an abortion, you know.”

“LOL, Mom. Seriously.”

“You’re a grown-up, Eliza! Not one of my students. Can you please not speak in acronyms?”

“Sorry, it’s just, that has nothing to do with what we’re talking about.”

“I was just saying, I’m not some square.”

I’m feeling restless and I wade into the ocean, icy and gray at my feet. It’s overcast and the beach is nearly empty except for a lone surfer in a green bodysuit who is dipping in and out of the water, planting his feet firmly and then tipping over. I count to three and then swim out, dunk my head under and do a few breaststrokes before reemerging. It’s chilly but beautiful, and as I float on my back, my long hair fanning out behind me, I’m overcome with longing. I wish I were a person who believed—who could somehow know that my father was present in the ocean, was floating there alongside me in some hazy, unearthly way. I want to be a person who doesn’t see the absolute finality of death. Who didn’t know with certainty, that when my father lay on the ceramic-tiled kitchen floor, after the aneurysm in his brain detonated and burst, that he was gone.

***

The next morning is bright and cloudless, and we’re on a motorboat with our snorkeling instructor, Kyle, holding rubber fins and adjusting our masks. Kyle wears a single seashell on a piece of string around his wrist and makes ocean-related jokes whenever possible (Where do fish keep their money? In a river-bank!). He is handsome in a nineties, Baywatch sort of way—with a broad tanned chest and a dimple in his chin.

“You’re adorable,” my mother tells him, just before easing herself into the water.

I jump in after her and we are just beneath the surface, cloaked in gear, the sun glinting off the water. Beside us is something like a forest of coral, yellow and blue. I take my mother’s hand and we follow a school of striped fish—bright and beautiful, impossibly intact.

Later, back on the boat, my mother whispers, “He’s so cute, don’t you think?”

“He is, but not my type.”

And then she says for probably the fifth time on this trip, “I just want you to be happy.”

“I appreciate that but I am happy. Regardless of whether or not I have a boyfriend.”

“Everybody wants to be loved,” she says, somewhat sheepishly.

“I’m not disagreeing with you, but I can still have a really fulfilling life and be single.” Though I’m mostly arguing on principle. The reality is that being with Gabriel has left me light-headed in a way I haven’t felt in years. I feel a general sense of calm just knowing he’s around, like keeping a tiny orange tab of Xanax in my pocket, just in case.

***

We sit outside, just before sunset, at a circular bar resembling a tiki hut. My mother wears a black sleeveless top and a denim skirt that falls just above her knees.

“You look pretty,” I say.

She smiles. “Look at us,” she says. “Two single girls out on the town.” With two fingers she drags strands of hair away from my face.

“Very funny,” I say.

“I’m not trying to be funny! We’re on vacation! Let’s go for it. There are so many hand-some men here.”

“Alright, alright, relax.”

“What? You think because I’m your mother I can’t be a sexual person? Why is it so repugnant for you to think of me as an attractive woman?” Even since she stopped with the excessive grooming and exercise, my mother is still beautiful and put together, her face glowing and dusted with freckles, her whole body lean and lithe.

“Why are you trying to provoke me so much? Of course you’re attractive. I just don’t want to think of you as a sexual person. I’m your child.”

“Sure, but you’re not a child. You’re an adult. And I just want you to know that I’m not planning to spend the rest of my life alone.”

“Of course not. I’m not asking you to do that.”

“You are, though, in a sense. You’re the only person who hasn’t been encouraging me to sign up for Jdate or eHarmony or one of those sites. All of my friends are trying. Aunt Linda’s trying, even Grandma.”

The bartender approaches and offers a list of specialty cocktails featuring lots of rum and puréed mango and pineapple. I can feel my eyes filling. I ask for a whiskey ginger, and my mother requests something called a Punky Monkey.

“Mom, it hasn’t been that long.” I feel a peculiar pressure in my gut, the ugliest part of myself being revealed. I’m not a seven-year-old or even a teenager but it feels impossible to move forward. I try to conjure my father’s insight; maybe he would note how badly I want to preserve the family structure in which I was raised, how I want to never stop mourning his death.

“It’s been three years!” my mother says, raising her fingers. “Three years.”

I fiddle with an orange peel, digging my nails into the foamy white half-moon.

“Do you know what these three years have been like?”

“I’m not trying to compete with you, Mom. But Jesus Christ, I’m the one who lost a father.”

Two men sit down beside us. They are dressed in linen pants and Polo shirts. My mother is whispering now, her jaw clenched. “I know that, of course I do.”

Once, when I was nine and began to throw a temper tantrum in a shoe store because all I wanted was a pair of seventy-dollar Doc Martens, my mother grabbed me by the wrist and in a rarely physical moment demanded: You will not make a scene, you will not!

The sun is dipping, and around us the horizon is wide and low, suddenly breathtaking. The sky is shifting from pink to violet to blue. We share a plate of grilled calamari and one of the men next to my mother leans over and taps his glass to hers.

“Cheers,” he says. “I’m Jerry. This is, amazingly enough, my friend Jerry, too.” The man next to him smiles and shrugs his shoulders. “What can you do?”

“Nice to meet you. I’m Sherry, this is my daughter, Eliza.”

I wait for the lazy joke suggesting we can’t possibly be mother and daughter, but it doesn’t come.

“Nice to meet you too,” the Jerrys say in unison. And then one of them, who wears a salmon-colored dress shirt says, “Mind if we skootch a little closer? Have some dinner together?”

The dinner is less unpleasant than I imagined it would be. Jerry One is a public defender outside of Atlanta and Jerry Two is a high school history teacher. They are impressed that my mother was the first female principal in Rockville Center and similarly applaud me for the bravery it takes to leave a PhD program, to embark on some unknown and ill-defined path. They order another round of drinks and then split a bottle of rosé. Jerry Two wants to know all the commercials he may have seen me in and then I do a little bit where I mimic myself acting, feigning the affected voice of a commercial actress. My mother leans over and kisses my cheek. “My beautiful girl,” she says.

I reach down for my purse and feel a wave of alcohol rising in my body. Beneath the bar Jerry One is dragging his fingers against the side of my mother’s denim skirt. She angles her knees toward him so that they brush against his thigh.

I drain the glass and tap it against the bar.

“I think I better I get upstairs,” I say. “I’m a lightweight and pretty exhausted.”

Jerry Two says he’ll walk me inside.

Upstairs, I feed quarters into the vending machine. I buy a chubby container of original Pringles and a pack of Skittles. I sit cross-legged with the snacks in my lap and turn on the tele-vision. I think about three years: my father’s death is a law school graduate; my father’s death is the entire lifespan of my childhood pet rabbit, Ursula; my father’s death is the Korean war.

I think of the time when, in ninth grade, my friend Mallory Feldberg’s parents went out of town for a weekend, and we were supposed to have a sleepover, but just after I got there, Ja-son MacBride showed up and Mallory promptly took him to the bedroom and gave him a blow-job (which I would later hear about in minute detail, how Mallory’s jaw had ached and how afterward, Jason’s semen tasted like ranch dressing in her mouth—a comparison I’ve not been able to forget.)

I set the can of Pringles on the nightstand, too nauseated to eat. My father would ask why the dinner had been so upsetting. Was it an insult to his memory? Or was it because my mother had violated some subtle, unspoken rule about the way mothers and daughters behave in each other’s company?

I type out a text to Gabriel; this was the worst night, you around? But I don’t send it. Gabriel’s mother died when he was nineteen, after cracking her head open against the lip of the bathtub. He was the one who found her, who held her bloodied head as they waited for the para-medics to arrive. I imagine that Gabriel will respond and admonish me for being such a brat — tell me that I’m a grownup who has been cared for all my life, that I should want my mother to be happy. At least you have a mother. But Gabriel is too kind to say anything like that, even if he thinks it. I say it to myself, though.

The phone is unfamiliar territory for us but I decide to call him anyway. Gabriel picks up after a single ring and the connection is choppy.

“Hi?” I say, “Can you hear me?”

The words are tumbling out and we accidentally talk on top of each other and then pause in the same moments, each of us waiting for the other to respond. I hear a child wailing in the background and the din of an automated female voice, assertive and serene.

“You’re breaking up,” he yells. “I’m on the train, heading underground.”

***

Two hours later my mother comes in, making her way through the hotel room in soft, de-liberate steps. She places her purse on top of the dresser and turns off the television, then changes into a nightgown and steps into the bathroom to brush her teeth. She pulls back the comforter and climbs into bed and I pretend to be asleep as she sobs — the sheets gently rising and falling with her labored breath.

I wish I were the kind of person who would gingerly crawl into bed with her, who would ignore my own discomfort, and wrap my arms around her shoulders, brush the hair away from her damp face and say that everything will be fine. Instead, I lie still, my eyes closed, wondering what has made her cry. Perhaps it was just the unfamiliar touch of a man not her husband, but I don’t think about it too hard, because on some level I don’t want to know. Really what I want more than anything, is for my mother to remain just the tiniest bit unknowable.

***

My mother is still sleeping when I wake up just before ten. I slide on a pair of flip flops and head to the buffet in the hotel lobby. I load two plates with everything they have; watery eggs and turkey bacon, miniature boxes of Raisin Bran Crunch, a sesame bagel with pats of butter in the center, slices of cantaloupe and honey dew. A mug of coffee for my mother the way she likes it; filled three quarters of the way with decaf, a quarter with regular.

Later, we sit out on the deck, the sky is overcast but still bright. My mother stares down at the piece of cantaloupe that she is spearing with the side of her fork.

“You know I actually had a good time,” she says. “It’s always strange meeting somebody new. But he was kind, I think.”

“Good,” I say. “I’m glad.”

A script is resting in my lap and I ask if she wants to read lines with me. I'm Anna, again, the overlooked best friend, but she can be Olivia, the smug and cheery star, cloaked in running gear, perpetually navigating a love triangle. When I complain about my job, Olivia will encourage me to stand up to my ornery supervisor, because he wouldn't dare fire me. And maybe, as my mother feigns exasperation when two men text Olivia at the same time, demanding her affection, she will see what I see -- the chance to embody a life so utterly unlike her own.