y mother never found her soulmate. Instead, she found my father via the newspaper. The section was called “Eligible Bachelors, With Bachelor Degrees.”
I told Steven this on a dinner date. He found it hilarious, so much so that the waitress turned to look at us, his endless chuckles permeating through my skull and forming into a migraine. His face turned the color of my third glass of wine as he guffawed, “That’s f—ing barbaric, man. It’s just — how do you meet someone like that?” Before I could hastily change the topic to my mundane work commute, he told me it was genuinely rather depressing to meet your spouse under such inorganic and shallow circumstances.
He had swiped right on a picture of me from my stay in the Bahamas. I was wearing my skimpiest swimsuit, black lace. My parents met three times before getting married. Steven and I met three times before having sex.
Later that night, as I watched the moonlight sneak through the blinds and illuminate his blonde eyelashes, I felt an overwhelming bout of nausea. It was so arid in his room, to the point where I thought I would melt and create a gaping hole in his mattress. I entertained myself with thoughts of this morbid fate — an eternal spectator to the activities between him and the women he’d bring home next. The limited preamble, scruffy beard rubbing against their foreheads, short, grunted dialogue.
I wondered if they would also toss and turn when it was done, count sheep until they became the sheep, observing the two bodies below. One slumbering, one with wide, praying eyes; noting the distance between them, wide enough to venture into a convoluted past.
– – –
Almost two decades ago, I was eleven and curious, and my favorite person in the world was my mother. We were sitting on the balcony in our ancestral home, an ocean away from the family television on which I’d watch my favorite TV shows — shows that Mumma disapproved of. “All they show is kissing, kissing, and more kissing,” she’d complain.
Kissing. A fleeting brush of lips against mine. It was all I thought of, at eleven. I thought of the boy who sat next to me at school, his daffodil detergent, how the scent would waft through my nostrils if he were to grasp my face. I thought of a handsome substitute teacher, if his watery green eyes would bore through mine when the soft collision of our mouths would happen. How good it must feel, I figured. To be wanted so badly, gently.
Mumma had a different story. She often did, compared to the romantic tales I’d daydream about in my head. I asked her, on that rickety high-up porch, though I knew it was awkward, if she’d kissed anyone before my father, though I’d never actually seen her kiss my father. Then I couldn’t help but question: Do you think he’s your other half? The pale moon illuminated the empty fields ahead of us, and we were wrapped in the same blanket; I assumed we were so close at that moment that some of the blood she had given me held my idealism.
“You’ve been watching too many shows,” she said curtly. “What kind of questions are these?”
I shrugged, but internally, I was crushed. I’d kept a little wish in the back of my mind: that my mother’s soulmate was out there. Her furrowed brow informed me that he never existed, or she never found him. Which possibility was worse, I wondered. That she’d been born into a loveless world, or that society had directed her toward one.
– – –
“How about Thanksgiving?” my brother asked through the phone, his voice staticky as the train sped through the underground. “You can do Thanksgiving.”
A chill wafted through me as people disembarked for their stop, and I looked down at my sockless ankles. I envisioned my rose-pink, fuzzy pair forgotten on Steven’s carpeted bedroom floor, never to be worn by me again.
“Mira, come in November,” my brother continued stubbornly. “Krisha was just complaining about how she hasn’t seen you since the wedding.”
I considered my rehearsed fabrications. That’s our busiest month. Don’t have enough mileage for plane tickets. Mumma doesn’t want me there. Except the last one wasn’t quite a lie. “I’ll have to see,” I said, my eyes fixing on the teenage girls across from me. They were giggling about something on their phones.
“You haven’t even met your niece!” he said, scandalized. “She’s going to grow up without an aunt, then?”
“She was born three weeks ago.”
“Three weeks is a long time. She’s already — ”
“Curling her toes,” I finished for him. I couldn’t handle another flurry of mundane descriptions about muscle spasms; a newborn’s life isn’t as interesting as parents think. “Listen, I’ll call you later and let you know.”
“Mira,” he said, and his voice became urgent. I hated when he’d do this, even as a kid, the octave drop for a cryptic bombshell. “Don’t just come for the baby. Come for Mumma.”
I told him I had reached my street and hung up. I clung onto my coat, a well-worn, thrifted thing I’d bought during my first week in the city. I had been barely older than the other girls on the train, whose laughter reverberated in my ears and hollow heart, the hollow heart my brother and mother must’ve assumed I had. A woman with no familial instinct, no one waiting for her at her stop. I rummaged through my pocket and found a list of things I’d drunkenly written down to talk about with Steven during our third meeting. Exchange middle school horror stories. Ask if he believes in fate. Talk about how parents met, how that affects how I —
– – –
Love. I knew it could be in the unsaid things. Lavender was my favorite color, and for my sixteenth birthday, my father bought me a white sweater that I promised I loved. The next day I saw dried purple dye on my mother’s hands.
But I more deeply believe that it was supposed to be brash, loud, obnoxious — the opposite of what I witnessed growing up. Every Feb. 14, my mother was empty-handed. Sometimes I’d play their favorite songs on the stereo in the kitchen and hope they danced. They didn’t. My dad played too much poker, and my mother hated gambling; she’d often grumble that if she knew he was such an addict, she’d never have agreed to marry him. That’s what happens when you marry a stranger, I figured. You spend your whole life feeling like they are one.
My fury at my parents’ reality increased every year as I grew older. I didn’t want to be the product of a sparkless union, yet here I was. The declarations, the softness, the clichés; that was ideal. I chased after men that I thought would bring me fairytale endings. They gave me gifts — handwritten notes and quasi-expensive jewelry. They enveloped me, and my skin came alive. Some left many scars, some barely an indent. So the bar was raised, and from there I’d sometimes be happy — joyful, even — but never content. At twenty-one, I transferred to a college halfway across the country from my family. At twenty-five, I realized I hadn’t found him — the man who would love me so deeply that he’d stain his hands for me. At twenty-eight, I was beginning to think I never would.
– – –
What I don’t realize is why you don’t want to be close to us. My brother sent this text as I was on my third glass of wine and had been internally debating about calling Steven. Powdery slush fell outside and I had finished work early. I recalled how hot his room was, and how nice a warm body would feel as the temperatures dropped, so I wanted to contact him again. But then I remembered my socks and how he probably wouldn’t remember who they belonged to. Luckily, I didn’t have the time to think about this any further because of my brother.
Now, I didn’t know if he meant close in a geographic or figurative sense, but either way, I was enraged. Being the sister of a poster child doesn’t always have to come with resentment, but it did for me. From birth, he was endowed with feeble restrictions. While my mother lectured me about the intricacies of a hymen, he was out buying condoms. And then he got lucky, finally settling down with a girl my parents immediately approved of. Once, when I flew out for a holiday, we were having a candid adult conversation, the ones that feel odd because it will randomly hit you midway that you and your sibling are so grown up. I asked him if he ever felt guilt for his various flings. He looked me in the eye and laughed. “What’s there to feel guilty about?”
– – –
Nothing, in theory. Perfectly normal human behavior. But this is what happened when my mother found out I was close to losing my virginity:
It was because of Valentine’s Day, my junior year of high school. My first boyfriend left me a poorly written poem in my locker. I appreciated the sentiment, though it made me somewhat nauseous — because when my mother was my best friend, she’d warned me about men’s kindness. The carnal undertones that come with it, how dissecting their intentions can have you abandon all sanity.
Two weeks later, my mother found my first boyfriend’s generic stanzas on the floor of my bedroom. Rookie mistake on my part. Her wrath came with a drawn-out silence that made me prefer if the walls shook. I had entered the point in my life where begging for forgiveness felt like losing all my pride. “I’m in love with him,” I sobbed. “You can’t stop me from being with him.”
“Let me make it easy for you,” my mother told me. “Men would be willing to drive you to the end of the earth. And when you reach it, if you don’t give them what they want, they’ll have no problem pushing you off.”
“But you’ve only ever been with Dad.” This was a feasible argument, I’d figured. “You don’t know anything. You’re more naive than I am.”
Her mouth contorted in fury. The mouth she gave to me. The mouth that told her, “You’re jealous. You’re jealous I’ve found love, and you’re stuck with a man that doesn’t even touch you.”
The slap was not altogether surprising, but I had only known her gentle touch all my life. And from that day onward, I would never receive it from her again. So I called my first boyfriend to pick me up and had sex with him. It felt good. I felt disgusting. I cried after, for hours.
– – –
“I’ll pay for your plane ticket.”
“Just a couple of days.”
“I’m so busy — ”
“Mira,” my brother sighed. “God, things have been terrible, you have no idea.”
I was ready to throw my phone at the wall. “Stop with this vague bullshit.”
And then he went into full detail, the truth I could never have foreseen, since the last time I’d seen her a year ago, she was stable and alert. She was extremely cold to me, which meant she was normal. But this was the new reality: my mother’s failing memory, her constant quivers, her rapid decline. My father didn’t know how to deal with it or how to take care of her properly. My brother barely did. “You need to see her,” he begged.
I landed there the next night. Rapid onset dementia brought out the familial instinct, I suppose. She was frailer than I’d ever seen her, and when she looked at me, her eyes bugged out of her socket, and then they narrowed.
“I’m shocked you don’t have a man with you,” she slurred.
There it was. Rapid onset dementia wasn’t enough to take out my mother’s instinct to insinuate I was a whore.
– – –
I ended up having my first kiss at thirteen, not with the boy who smelled like daffodils, but with one who sprayed himself with Axe and stuffed his tongue in me like he’d die if he didn’t. I was depressed after, because I’d had such high expectations, and my mother could sense something was wrong. Obviously, I did not tell her what it was. But she left my favorite candy, purple warheads, on my desk. Years later, I would think about that, in Steven’s bed. I had no one to soothe my disappointments anymore.
– – –
My brother would not let me leave, even though I felt my help was useless. His wife was nice and all, but just like at their wedding, I had this sense I was an intruder. I tried having a meaningful discussion with my father about his wife’s depressing and fast-paced prognosis, but I barely even talked to him growing up, and that lack of communication only persisted. My mother stared into space or would jump when her bones shook within her unexpectedly. The only person that felt like family was my brother’s baby.
I didn’t expect such a visceral emotional reaction when I held her in my arms for the first time. A daughter. I closed my eyes and silently wished that she’d love without burdens. That shame would not be her second nature.
One afternoon, I fell asleep while watching the baby. I woke up in a panic when I realized she was gone from my hands. I felt even more anxiety when I realized who’d taken her. My brother had told me not to let my mother hold her, no matter how much she’d wanted to, because of her muscle spasms.
But when I stopped in the doorway of her room, she was the most stable I’d seen her in days. “I’m shocked you don’t have a man with you, Mira,” she said, rocking the baby. “I hope you find a good man.”
I felt the world stop around me as my eyes blurred with tears.
“I found your dad in the newspaper,” she said, and she laughed, the same sound that had compelled me so much as a young girl. “He’s a good man, when he’s not playing poker.”
There comes a time when your parents become people. For some, it’s a gradual realization, rather than one life-altering moment. And I remembered, not when she slapped me that day so many years ago, but when I saw the tears in her eyes right after.
At that point, she was no longer my best friend. But now her status as a villain dwindled away. I saw the woman with baggage, the woman who had been directed to a loveless world, the woman who thought she had a daughter to indoctrinate in hopes of protecting her. She wanted me to have a stable life like hers, because she was raised to believe it was better to never give love a shot, than to fall deeply for a man and get hurt.
Yet you can get hurt loving anyone. I got hurt loving my mother. My mother got hurt loving me. And at twenty-eight, I realized I might never find the man who’d stain his hands for me, a man who could be my soulmate. But I looked at the hands holding my niece and remembered the specks of lavender.