East Coast

by Jessica Anya Blau

Sometime in the middle of the night, I was jolted awake by the sound of my mother's voice.

"FUCK YOU… MA'R FUCK," she was shouting again in the guttural, thick tone of sleep talking.

I sat up and placed a pillow in front of my chest to catch the bullets that I anticipated would soon be flying through the wall.

"FU' YOU," she shouted. With my pillow in front of me like a shield, I picked up the second pillow from my bed, very gingerly laid it on my mother's back and then crouched down on the floor beside her. My mother rolled over, shrugging the pillow of so it landed on my head, and continued her sleep.

When Mom's breathing sounded steady and deep, and the threat of gunfire seemed to have passed, I lay back down on my bed and let myself sleep.

Mom spent only a few minutes at the bathroom wall with her glass the following night. The criminals had moved out, and new people, a couple with two crying kids, had moved in. My mother clunked the glass on the counter next to the sink, threw her hands up in the air and stomped out of the bathroom saying, "Boring, boring, boring!"

Waiting in the train station on our way to Maine, my mother bought a pack of cigarettes from a vending machine.

"You don't smoke," I said to her.

"I do now," she said, tapping the top of the pack against her open, flat palm.

"You'll stop when we get home, won't you?"

"Everything will be different when we get home," she said.

We were going to visit he best friends from graduate school: Annie and Fritz.

Annie picked us up at the train station. She looked pretty, but thrown together like a collage. Her socks didn't match, her long rust-colored hair was fastened on top of her head with a chopstick, and her beige corduroy shorts were held together with a pink monkey-headed diaper pin. I sat in the back seat with our matching soft-grey suitcases, and my mother sat in the front as Annie zoomed her big blue station wagon down the empty roads toward her house. Trees were swooshing by outside my window, an endless smudge of green and brown.

Annie stopped the car at the mouth of a dirt road where a mailbox stood, perched at an angle as if it were trying to peer through the car window.

"This is the mailbox," she said. "It's a half-mile from the house; a nice run in the summer, and a giant pain in the ass in the winter."

"Look at that," my mother said, turning to me, " a mailbox half a mile from the house!"

We pulled in front of an old, white, clapboard Victorian with a wraparound porch and green shutters. Fritz was standing on the front porch wearing a flannel nightgown and playing the flute. Rays of sun seemed to glisten and quiver inside large droplets of sweat on the top of his bald head. As we stepped out of the car, he turned his eyes toward us and smiled under his moustache without releasing the pucker on his mouth. We stood at the base of the steps and listened until Fritz came to a flourishing end. He pulled the flute from his mouth and waved it up in the air so that his arms formed a V.

My mother clapped, and Fritz rushed down the stairs, hugging and kissing Mom before bending over and pulling me tight against his chest.

"Great nightgown," my mother said.

"That's all we wear up here," Fritz said. "Annie made one for each of you, too."

We walked into the kitchen and sat at the giant oak table. There was a wood-burning stove in one corner, and the floors were warped into gentle slopes that reminded me of wind-blown sand. The ceiling was covered, like a crisp, dry field, with swatches of twine-bound lavender. When I leaned my head back in my chair, I imagined that the lavender was growing from the ground, and I was floating in the sky.

"What about when your patients come?" I asked. Fritz and Annie were both psychiatrists. After hearing Annie explain the "layout" of their lives to my mother in the car, I knew that they each had an office in separate wings of the house.

"What about when my patients come?" Fritz asked. He leaned in toward me and put a thick freckled hand on my knee.

"Do you still wear your nightgown?"

"Of course! In fact, I encourage them to wear their nightgowns, or pajamas if they prefer."

"What about Annie?"

"You'll have to ask her yourself," Fritz said, winking slowly so that his thick moustache leaned up like a caterpillar inching toward his eye.

"Ask me what?" Annie said. She and my mother were already deep in conversation.

"Do you wear your nightgown when you meet with your patients?"

"Of course not!" she said. "I meet with them completely naked. And I urge them to do the same!"

My mother laughed, so I laughed along with her. But I wasn't sure whether we were laughing because it was true or because Annie was joking.

That evening before bed, Annie gave us each the flannel, foulard print nightgown she had sewn for us. It was a hot night, so I pulled the nightgown up around my waist and slept on my back with my legs spread so that each of my feet dangled off the edge of the single bed. A cool breeze sailed in through the window, tickled my toes and gently caressed me to sleep.

The next morning, I got out of bed, checked for my mother in her room, which adjoined mine, and then wandered around the house searching for the grown-ups. My bare feet were silent along the smooth, sloped floor, as I padded through several dusty rooms filled with overstuffed, half-broken furniture, boxes lined against walls, and books stacked in narrow piles, like the twisted, amorphous high-rises illustrated in Dr. Seuss books.

Fritz's office door was closed, but I could hear voices, and assumed he was with a patient. I wondered if they were wearing nightgowns. Outside the swinging kitchen door, I caught the end of a sentence from my mother, "…old enough to handle it." I leaned back against the hallway and waited to hear more.

"It's hard no matter what age they are," Annie said. "But your kids are all pretty well adjusted."

"I just wonder how it will affect Rikki's anorexia. She's doing so well now, eating every day." A cloud of smoke drifted out of the kitchen and tickled my nose. I could hear the smallest gasp from my mother as she exhaled.

"As long as they understand that it has nothing to do with them," Annie said, "then they'll be okay. Kids are resilient."

My stomach contracted and I felt slightly ill; I put one hand on the door frame, steadied myself, and then pushed open the door with a silent whoosh.

"Hi honey," my mother said, crushing her cigarette so it folded into the ashtray. She and Annie were both wearing their nightgowns. They were seated on opposite sides of the table, a giant beaker of coffee and a loaf of speckled, grainy bread on the table between them.

"Do you want some toast?" Annie asked. "Fritz baked the bread himself."

"No thanks," I said, and I slumped into a chair next to my mother, pulling my knees up under the nightgown so that I resembled a bumpy, flannel ball.

"Alice was just telling me," my mother said, "there are some farmers who live down the road. And one of them is married to his sister…"

"Stepsister," Annie said.

"Stepsister," my mother said. "And her sister is married to his cousin, and they all live together with something like thirteen kids…"

"Seven kids," Annie interrupted.

"Seven kids," my mother continued, "and all of them are sort of dopey looking."

I nodded my head and looked trance-like at the giant rock of bread in the middle of the table.

"So we were thinking that we'd take a walk after breakfast, and see if we can check out the farmer family."

"Are you going to wear your nightgowns?" I asked, without looking up.

"We'll do whatever you want," Mom said.

"No nightgowns," I said.

"Okay with me," my mother said. "Okay with you?" she turned to Annie.

"Fine with me," Annie said. "Fritz is the one who's hung up on wearing nightgowns anyway." My mother laughed, leaned back in her chair, struck a wooden match against the wrought-iron wood-stove, then lit up another cigarette.

That night, as I lay in bed listening to the hum of grown-up conversation down the hall, I pulled out my diary and made another entry.

Dear Diary

Today Annie and Mom and I took a long walk. We were trying to find some loony family with a bunch of weird kids. Annie showed us the house but no one ever came out, so then she took us over to this nutty divorced lady's house. She said that we would love this woman because after her husband moved out, she never cleaned her house again and there was so much dirt and mold and rotten food and stuff, that if the town, or state, ever saw it, they would put her away. Well, the divorced lady wasn't home either so we didn't get inside her house. Mom was so curious that she snooped around and peered in all the windows. She was really freaking out when she looked in the kitchen window. She and Annie made a foothold with their hands, and I stood on them and looked through the window too. It was like looking into a garbage dumpster; except it's really someone's kitchen.

I have been feeling a little sick to my stomach all day. I told Fritz, and he said, your stomach is trying to tell you something. And I said, that I'm sick? And he said, no, something else, something that you don't want to think about. That's all. Love, Jennifer.

That night my mother was yelling again in her sleep. I turned the gumdrop-shaped knob on the light next to my bed and looked toward her room. The door was ajar, forming a narrow slat of blackness between our rooms.

"MOTHER FUCKER!" She pushed the words out as if they were torn from her gut, caught in her throat. I got out of bed and walked into my mother's room. She appeared small, almost childlike, her body the shape of a comma under the white sheet.

"Mom," I whispered. "Mom."

She didn't stir. I approached the bed and looked down at the mass of hair tangled around her head. It looked as if she had been riding in a car with the top down.

"Mom." I laid my hand on her shoulder and shook it gently.

"Huh…" She batted her eyes but did not open them.

"Mom, you were yelling in your sleep."

She opened her eyes and turned toward me.


"You were yelling in your sleep."

"What'd I say?" she asked, reaching for my hand with hers, then holding my fingers loosely in her palm.

"You said 'Mother fucker'," I said, and started to cry.

"Come here, honey." My mother tugged my arm and I collapsed on the bed beside her, burying my face against her chest.

"It's alright," she said, stroking my hair, smoothing it with her fingers.

"Are you and dad getting divorced?" I stuttered the question through my tears.

"We're not sure," she said. "When we get back, I'm moving into an apartment downtown. Your dad and I just need a little break from each other."

"Why?" My voice screeched up as if a rope had been tightened around my diaphragm.

"It's very complicated," she said, "and I'll explain it to you another day when I understand it better. But it has nothing to do with you, or Rikki, or Joe."

"Where will we live?" I sobbed.

"You'll stay in the house with Dad. But I'll come over and see you every day when you get home from school. And I'll see Rikki and Joe all the time because I'll be taking them to the therapist, and piano lessons, and the chess club, and everything else.


My mother tilted my head up, her hands on each of my ears and kissed me all over my wet, teary face.

"I'll get there as early as I can," she said. "I'll try to see you for as much time as I can before their appointments. I'm not leaving you; I'm leaving your dad."

I collapsed into her chest and cried until no sound came out and my body fell limp into sleep.

The next morning, I awoke thinking that my mother was still there. I opened my eyes and saw that I was alone with the woodsy-dark smell of her patchouli oil on the pillow.

Fritz was in his office again. I lingered outside the door for a moment, waiting for it to open and someone to emerge, so I could see for myself if he really treated his patients while wearing his nightgown. As I entered the kitchen, I found Annie and Mom at the table. Mom was pushing smoke out of her nose like a dragon, and Annie was pulling off morels of bread from the spaceship-shaped loaf in the center of the table and feeding them to herself like a bird feeding its chick.

"Guess what?" my mother asked, as I slumped into a chair.

"What?" I reached across the table and tore a chunk of bread from the loaf.

"The prison is having a craft fair today. Can you believe it? Annie read about it in the paper this morning…"

"Last week," Annie said.

"Last week," my mother said. "And we get to go. Isn't that great? I can't think of anything better than a prison craft fair."

"What kind of things do they sell?" I asked.

"I don't know, homemade knives? What do you think Annie?" Mother turned her head and took another puff of her cigarette.

"No, I think it's a lot of macrame, pottery, and stuff like that," Annie said.

Fritz emerged. He was wearing jeans and a grey tee-shirt.

"Ah ha!" I said. "You didn't meet with your patient in your nightgown!"

"Yes I did," he said, grinning with a crescent-moon smile. "But I got dressed after he left, so I can go to the prison craft fair with you."

"How do you know about the prison craft fair?"

"We were discussing it before you woke up." Fritz sat down and ripped off a hunk of bread the size of a baseball. "How's your stomach?" he asked.

"A little better, I guess."

"That's good," he said. "That's a start."

My mother let me sleep in bed with her for the remainder of our nights in Maine. She would stroke my hair with one hand and hold her book open with the other. I'd fall asleep buried under her arm, my face pressed against the fuzzy, flannel nightgown. She never yelled at night again, but she did flip around a lot, and I sense myself chasing her across the bed in my sleep as I tried to scoot closer and closer.

I opened the diary several times those last few days, but found I was unable to write. All I could think was that my mother was going to leave. To put it down on paper would seem to make her departure even more certain; and somehow I felt guilty for considering writing those words in the book that my father gave me.

Mom and Annie cried at the kitchen table our last morning in Maine. Fritz cancelled his appointment and made a special "goodbye breakfast" of homemade, whole wheat croissants, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and cream with blueberries purchased from a farm down the road. We sat around the table in our nightgowns, spooning up sugared blueberries, and chewing on rubbery croissants that tasted, to me, like wet cardboard. After breakfast, Annie gave me a tiny lace sachet filled with lavender from the garden.

"Fold the nightgown around the sachet," my mother said, when we were packing our bags. "Then when you wear it back home, it will smell like Maine and remind you of our trip." I started to do as she told me, but changed my mind after lifting the nightgown to my face and breathing in the scent of my mother. I tucked the diary into the lap of the nightgown, and pushed them both down deep into my bag.

Fritz and Annie dropped us off at the airport on their way to a "Primal Scream" conference in Bangor. Mom was wearing the same dress she wore on our flight out, and I had on my last pair of clean pants and a puffy-sleeved Mexican blouse.

"I'm still not wearing any underwear." Mom smiled and nudged me in the belly with her forefinger.

We had three hours before our flight; plenty of time to read magazines in the sundry store, and play a game that my mother invented, called "Find the Freak". Each person would try to find someone peculiar; the goal was to outdo the other person's last find. At one moment I looked up and saw a man in a suit motioning his thumb toward my mother and me as he leaned in to say something to a woman. I wondered if they were playing "Find the Freak" too.

While we were wandering, we came across an instant photo booth lined up with the newspaper and life-insurance stands.

"Let's take our picture," my mother said. She shook her purse with it tilted at an angle so that all the change would fall to the corner where she could find it without rummaging. After putting two quarters in the slot, my mother sat on the rotating cushioned stool in the small booth; I sat on one of her knees. She reached over and pulled the thick, burgundy drape shut so we'd be photographed in privacy.

"When that red light goes on, then it'll take the picture," she said.

"I can read the instructions too," I said, and my mother laughed just as the first flash blinded us.

I opened my mouth in a silent scream, Mom glanced at me quickly and did the same. We froze like statues until the second flash lit up our faces.

"Make a smoochie face," Mom commanded.

I puckered my lips, leaned in toward the glass that hid the camera, and shut my eyes to look like I was in love. The inside of my eyelids glowed as the flash went off.

"Okay, now serious face," she said before the fourth and final photo.

I turned my head and looked at her, my brow furrowed as I mocked a pondering face. She put her finger up to her chin as if she were thinking up something extraordinary; the flash exploded.

We waited patiently for the wet, bitter-smelling photos to be spit from a slot outside the booth. When they finally began to emerge, my mother grabbed the edges of the narrow strip and lowered her hand as the pictures slowly glided out of the machine. She squatted on the ground, and I leaned over her shoulder to examine our grey and white faces.

"Just think," my mother said, "there'll never be another moment in our lives when we are exactly as we are now."

"Yeah," I said, pointing a dull finger at the photos, "that's what we were like back then."


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