My mother sews, and also talks to spirits. She recounts her conversations with them as casually as if these spirits were old friends she’d run into in the tampon aisle of the drugstore.
I fainted once in the tampon aisle of the drugstore. Before there was floor but after there was blackness, after the shaking in my knees and ankles had unhinged all the images from my eyes, I thought I heard spirit voices, too. It turned out those voices belonged to two women who had been shopping nearby when I went down. And I went down, I later learned from the pharmacist who had rushed out from behind the counter, because you’re not supposed to go off anti-depressants cold turkey. You’re supposed to gradually decrease the dosage even though you decide one day that you don’t need those little yellow pills, that without them the world is fine, you are fine, life is fine.
How was school? my mother used to ask.
And your test?
She would always press for details, but fine was the only word I could let loose. Fine was everything and nothing. Mostly, however, it was a lie.
All my life I’ve known this: Before my mother knew she was pregnant with me she heard a voice. It’s a girl and her name is Patricia. She’d been coming out of the bathroom at the time. She said that voice had made her stop short at the top of the stairs.
When I tell this story to friends I actually do the voice. I make it deep and heavy then open my arms and end by saying, Lo and behold, as I am a girl and my name is Patricia. What I don’t tell them is that this name has failed to hold my weight, that it too may be a lie, that there have been times when I could not trust it, or recognize it as my own. This happened once in Crete.
I was in the midst of a high school year abroad, staying in a village in the White Mountains. I was wearing a white pullover jacket from the year before when my field hockey team had won the State Championship. My name was embroidered in black on the breast. It was three in the morning; no one else in the house was awake. I went outside in the garden to smoke. I smoked back then; I tainted the body my mother gave me. But the name that came with it, that name withered away on its own. I did nothing but look down upon those eight letters sewn tightly into my breast, and they unraveled before me, leaving nothing but black string at my feet. That night it was as if I had never seen my name before.
I said it out loud, Patricia, but thought, This can’t belong to me.
I called my mother the next morning. I called to hear her say my name. I called to say, The Samarian Gorge, we’re going tomorrow to hike the whole thing and spend the night at the bottom. I was smoking a cigarette, exhaling softly so my mother wouldn’t hear.
I’ve been there with your dad. It was right after you were born. Oh Patricia, it’s beautiful. The gorge is full of spirits.
A man interrupted, tapping me on the shoulder, asking me if he could borrow my lighter. He was speaking in Greek.
I understood every word.
Mom asked, What was that all about?
This man wanted to borrow my lighter, I told her.
Silence from the other end of the line.
Silence too in the Samarian Gorge. I heard no spirits there, only an occasional hawk overhead screeching into the wind.
Patricia will go to China, another thing they told her. I was three at the time. She was walking in a parking lot, stepping over rainbow slicks of oil when she heard the voice. A year later, with me in tow, my mother and father crammed twenty-six suitcases full of “necessities” and boarded a plane for Beijing where my mother had been offered a job teaching English.
I had hair so blonde it looked white in certain lights. This was 1980; China had only recently opened its boarders to foreign travel. I learned Chinese within a few months and don’t remember a word of it now, but my mother has a bag of cassettes with my voice on them, babbling away in all the right inflections. I think, for the most part, I was reciting nursery rhymes I had learned in my Chinese school. My father had bought a bicycle and peddled me to and from class, me like a princess in a bamboo seat that was mounted on the handlebars.
I was always treated like a princess. Most people there had never laid eyes on a blonde-haired child. While the other children in my class sat straight-backed, hands folded tightly atop their desks, I sat on the teacher’s lap at the front of the room while she painted little red circles on my pudgy white cheeks.
When people learn that I’m an only child, they nod their heads, and I can see the word spoiled scroll through their minds. In the pause before they speak again, the air is bloated with uncomfortable pictures of ponies and ribbons; and I think of China, of the way my mother insists that at any given moment a hundred hands were clamoring to rub my hair, my arms, my marshmallow legs. When I returned to the States at the age of five, I went straight to summer camp and demanded that my counselors carry me up the mountain we were meant to hike that day.
While I was at camp, my parents stayed at a bed and breakfast, in a room that had once belonged to the famous writer, Edith Wharton. One night, while my father slept, my mother wrote me a letter. I hope camp is going well. I hope you’re enjoying yourself. I hope. . . . And then, as my mother tells it, her pen began to write on its own. Patricia, Patricia, Patricia.
My mother addressed the musk in the air. Edith? Is that you?
Yes, the pen wrote, wobbling a little on its inky point.
Then tell me when you were born.
The date written down was not the date in my mother’s biography of Edith Wharton, but she continued the conversation anyway, and Edith Wharton, or whoever it was, went on to say that I would someday write a book about the wilderness.
Fifteen years later, when I was in college, I tried to write that book. I used the words nest and knobby and node. But I could only envision oak, a dark bedpost, the way my then-boyfriend had his hand around it when I opened the door to find him naked with another girl. It had happened a few days before. The girl actually smiled while I stood there. He was flexing instead of putting on a shirt, speaking instead of moving toward me. Nests unraveled. Trees were top-heavy and suddenly fell over. The world became loose and ashy and I was powerless to wash it off. So I stopped bathing. I stopped eating. Apples became land mines; cereal became quicksand. Lasagna was putrid. Even water had to fight its way down my throat. My teeth grew thick sweaters of plaque, and I didn’t care enough to find my toothbrush in the mess of clothes on my dorm room floor. I was miserable and malnourished and the one time I tried making my way to class, I fainted in front of the Student Union.
The Health Center called my mother. She flew out the same day. I remember leaning on her tiny tiny body as she took me to see Dr. Wyatt, a thin-lipped wiry psychologist who sent me away in less than fifteen minutes with a prescription for anti-depressants. I took them religiously every morning for the next three years. They were solid, bright, and yellow in my hand. But I buried them deep behind my tongue, drowned them in water, sometimes rum, and they offered little by way of solace. I remained flat and spindly, except for those ephemeral times when I managed to slither into the skin of some character in a book.
My appetite for books was insatiable. I found Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth in the used bookstore on campus. The pages had yellowed, some had detached themselves from the seam and might’ve flown away if I hadn’t carried my copy so gingerly clutched to my chest. I had expected, when I opened it at home, to hear Edith Wharton’s voice and not just those of her characters. But between the lines on the pages there was only silence. Ms. Wharton sought to communicate through my mother alone, who was on a plane to London, somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean when the voice came back.
Patricia, Patricia, Patricia, it said to her. And I imagine at the time I was curled up in my solitary room smaller than a regulation prison cell. My depression, as Dr. Wyatt called it, had moved past that of a scorned lover but still remained settled over my chest like a sleeping cat. More than anything I was lonely, having allowed the few friends I once had to fade to gray. They preferred, I think, the easy company of my ex-boyfriend anyway.
Patricia will be married by the age of twenty-one, drop out of college, get pregnant and move to Paris. When I turned twenty-two my mother told me what the voice had said.
I waited to see if it would happen, she added, and it didn’t.
What did happen is that after I graduated I went traveling. I went to all the places she told me were sacred, all the places she’d been at my age, except Paris. I avoided Paris. I avoided getting pregnant too, though I had sex with several men and fainted twice while traveling in India — but that was from dysentery — and once in Australia — but that was because I was hung over and dehydrated. When my mother handed me the money for the trip, I nodded, meaning I understood about leaving my malaise in a foreign country, about shedding that skin and coming back new.
I might even come back with that book about the wilderness.
You might, she agreed. Circles in nature, they’re the resting places of spirits, she told me.
She also told me that the dust in our house was tracked in from the seatbelts in our car. I was small at the time. I remember dangling my legs over the edge of her bed and looking across the room at a black lacquered Chinese jewelry box. I could see flecks in the air floating in the lamplight above it. What is that? I asked her.
To this day she denies ever giving me such a nonsensical answer. But I believed it for years. My mother tells me I must have dreamed the incident, except I remember it precisely, how she was hooking the back of her bra when she said it, how a clear morning had just consumed the colors of dawn, how I was hungry, waiting for breakfast and my ride to school.
There is dust all over my apartment now. I know what it is and that it’s there because I clean too rarely. Since I moved into this apartment only twenty minutes from my parents’ house, the house where I grew up, I’ve been trying to see Truth in everything. I’ve started meditating regularly at a yoga center down the street. Last week I brought my mother along, my tiny tiny mother who took up only half a cushion on the floor next to me.
Did you hear anything? she asked afterwards.
No. No spirits. But I did hear her breathing. I tried to match her inhalation, her taking in of the world. I felt how it was held deep inside her body, beyond the walls of her lungs and the boundaries of her brain. I felt the space between mother and daughter cease to exist in the brief moment before the letting go, the exhalation that I knew would come, like I knew the floor would come after Playtex and OB turned to blackness in the tampon aisle of the drugstore.
But I know now how to properly wean myself off anti-depressants. I know too that when the phone rings it will be my mother.
Mom, how are you?
But I know that she is tired, that a pinched vertebrae keeps her up at night, that she has just finished the dinner dishes and will probably stay up and watch a documentary on TV. Fine is still a lie.
I wait for the name to form itself around me, a silky cocoon of invisible threads. I wait to hear the knots tighten, for the ends that remain undone to fall away. I wait for the room to smell milky, like the cream my mother spackles on her face, the cream she says tightens the skin around her eyes. I wait to feel firm, and then I answer.
Livia Kent holds an MFA from American University. Her work has appeared in Folio, Common Boundary, Mangrove, Poetry Motel, and Scribble. She is currently finishing her first novel.