I've been washing clothes for a woman that used to wash mine. And I've been helping her put them on right after she comes out of the bathroom all inside out. And it makes me remember one of her favorite stories to tell used to be about the time I put my rain boots on by myself at daycare. And how I came stomping out to the car all proud and smiling and with the boots on the wrong feet. And how when I got into the car, I said to her, Mom, I put my boots on by myself. And how she said, I see that.
She knew I fucked it up. But she never said anything. It probably wasn't the first time she did that. It definitely wasn't the last.
It's good to have people you can make mistakes in front of.
I tell her it's time for radiation. And she says, I've done this before, haven't I? And I say, Two weeks. And she says, Two weeks? I say, We have three more. And she shakes her head. She goes to the bathroom to get out of her nightgown and into her clothes. And when she comes out, her pants are on inside out. She isn't all proud and smiling. She is weary and disoriented. And she holds her hand to her head and she says, What's making me like this? And I say, You have a tumor in your brain. I say, It's the radiation. And she says, How long have I been like this? And I say, Two weeks. And she says, How much longer? And I say, Three more.
But I don't know if that's true.
I say, Mom, we need to put your pants on the right way. I say, Your pockets are on the outside. And she looks down and says, How did I do that? And it's not really embarrassment I hear in her voice. Just confusion. And so she sits on the bed and she takes off her pants. She takes them off in front of her son. And it should be painful for her to do that. In the past, it would have been. But now it isn't. Because now it doesn't matter. And she sits on the bed in nothing but her underwear and a bra. And she looks frail and her thin gray hair is uncombed. And her skin is loose on her bones. And I pull the pant legs into themselves so they are the right way out. And I hand her the pants. And she takes them and puts them on.
I've been bringing her things to make the place she's at feel more like home. A blanket. A picture. A clock. I'm bringing them from a home she really doesn't remember anymore. A home full of things she used to love and cherish and collect. It's a home she left over a month ago in a truck with the lights on top. And even though she can't remember it, she says she wants to go back there every day. And she asks me every day if she will. And I lie and I say yes. And I think how maybe that's not really a lie at all. Because we all return home, in the end, wherever that is. And I don't tell her I've been out all day looking for a different home she can stay in while we wait.
And me, I've come back to a city I used to call home. And I've been driving and driving. Because that's what you do here. And sometimes I even get in my truck and drive three hundred feet to a parking lot across the street. Like when I'm going from the gym to the smoothie store.
And everything is familiar here. Except me. I don't recognize my voice. And when I take calls from strangers, I think, whoever this guy is, he isn't so bad. He talks pretty. And I go about these one-act plays, rehearsing the scripts I've written in my head. Changing up my inflection. Practicing my smile. Now the nurse in the hallway. Now the hospital chaplain. Now the woman selling me a new home for mom. Now the girl at the beer store. Now the smoothie guy. Now the dude at Coffeeland. Now mom telling me she hears music.
But there is no music.
I've been eating sushi at stoplights. And grocery store parking lots. Not really in the moment, but not entirely out of it, either. Swallowing my thoughts and words before they form. Tasting things only briefly before erasing them with ginger. And I've been spitting butts out my truck window when the paper burns down. And dressing inappropriately for the weather, and cursing the cold rain—and the bright sun—in equal measure.
And yesterday, as I sat there waiting for the light to turn, I remembered Monica in that hotel room in Tennessee, and how she rolled over and cried after she came. And how I lay on my back and looked at the ceiling still feeling her wet on my skin. Still tasting her. And how I didn't speak for swallowing. And how I felt myself go soft for her, but I didn't touch her. Because I'm not interested in that kind of mistake. And we were there in the quiet room, as close and as far as we've ever been. And we fell asleep that way.
The next day we got dressed in silence. Outside in the cold, she said, I told him about you, and he's not coming back this time. She said, I think I fucked it up. And her brown eyes were hollow. And her brown eyes were wet. And before we got into our different cars on our way to our different lives, I put my hand to her neck and her neck was warm.
Behind my truck seat, are plastic bags I've sealed with a knot. Inside them are empty sushi trays. Only a lump of wasabi remains in each. And sometimes I'll collect two or three of these tied bags before I remember to deposit them in the trash. And it feels good that I can gather them no matter where I go. Because, in modern cities, there is always a place to buy sushi. And so there is always a place I can call home.
Until one day when I won't be able to remember home anymore. And I'll just have these broken memories of things I used to collect. Things I used to cherish. Things I used to do that I was proud of. Things I used to do that I wasn't. And I'll talk about them to strangers who bring me medicines. And I'll say, There was a time I ate sushi at stoplights. And I'll say, I listened to someone cry once and I didn't know what to do and so I did nothing. And I'll say, I'm not sure if I should have helped her live, or helped her die. And I'll say, I've made so many goddamned mistakes.
And it'll be just another thing that won't matter. Like putting my boots on the wrong feet.
I'll say the words until they become my stories. I'll keep stringing them together the way I've learned to do. And I'll repeat them over and over. Until finally there is nobody left to hear them. Until finally the words themselves will fade and become meaningless.
And it won't be so bad when that happens. It really won't.
Originally published in Crate Literary Journal (Issue 7, Spring 2011).