Faced with the imminent death of her mother, Emma Pedreira's narrator reflects on how little they know one another.
Mamá will die tomorrow. Or maybe the day after tomorrow, I’m not sure, but I don’t want to stop to think about it. What I do know is that I’ll get a call and there’ll be a quiet voice, used to these types of things, and in such a schematic way that it’ll sound like a note jotted down on a Post-it: Your mother is dead. In accordance with her wishes, the burial will be tomorrow. We are very sorry.
But it doesn’t matter whether it’s tomorrow or the day after or whenever. Everything is happening as expected. The point is that she’s about to die and I don’t know how I feel about it.
I hardly know her, but I’ve been preparing myself mentally for this moment my whole life. Trying to decide whether I should hold back my tears or let them fall freely. I don’t know what’s going to happen, if they’ll come naturally or if I’ll have to fake them or if, on the contrary, I’ll finally be able to enjoy an infinite moment of peace, of compensation, of natural conciliation, of being able to relax the muscles that were born all tensed up and only when they’ve loosened up can I tell how rigid and painful they’ve been. I’ve been stiff ever since I can remember.
I don’t know Mamá. Or rather, I do know her, I know her first name, her surnames, her telephone number, her real hair color and the biography that’s on the inside flap of her books. I know her curriculum vitae, the differences between the nails on some fingers and on others, the brand of cigarettes she smokes, the yellow color of her fingertips which gives her away and makes her feel like she’s been judged but is not guilty. The world has changed, she’d say, always tending to make an excuse for it, when I started smoking the world demanded you do it, but now they demand you stop, they get you one way or another. I know she’d talk like that. I just know it. Ms. Notme, Ms. Excusemebut.
What I don’t know is how good she is as a mother. What the scent of her neck would be like when I was upset or how she would mark the occasion when I started to menstruate. I don’t know what look she’d have on her face if she’d seen me stoned or drunk the first time. I don’t know what tone of voice she’d use when she caught me stoned or drunk coming home in the wee hours of the morning. I know the tone of her voice better through the telephone or perhaps the videos of her I can watch on the internet. I know what she’s like inside, just as well as her best literary critic could, her best reader. I am her best reader.
In her books I can see the heights of her traumas and, if I dig deeper, I can recognize my name a thousand times.
I don’t even know if she’s the one who chose such a simple name, one you can find everywhere, or if it was Papá. I suppose she did, she just said it and Papá, who craved flesh, blood, the future, didn’t care if it was that name or something else.
Papá isn’t going to die. Papá is going to stay with me forever, holding hands, our faces close, lots of kisses and incomprehension, like Siamese twins with our respective traumas and with a two-for-one coupon—the post-traumatic family pack—at the psychologist’s.
I know how my father’s going to react when he receives the news. He’ll sigh, he’ll shake his head to erase what he’s just heard me say or what somebody else has said, if I’m not the one who’s told him, and he’ll keep on doing whatever it is he’s doing, listening to one of his old albums, or playing the guitar, or arguing with someone by internet. In his own world. Like he always is. In that world where he made a small nook for me but where I’m still a little satellite, close to him, but in the end still a satellite.
The voice will also tell me that I can come collect her personal belongings. A box of medicine that, in case they don’t want it, I can donate or drop off at a recycling place. Her underwear, which I imagine has been folded up to as small as possible and organized by color groups. Her books, the few she could keep in such a small space, and, supposedly, some keys that will allow me to enter the biggest kingdom in the world where everything that belongs to her will be waiting for her to return to die a little more.
I imagine myself opening the door to that place that I still haven’t seen, a small apartment, one I also imagine is crammed with books, notes, newspaper clippings, and awards for her accomplishments. I suppose I will find an envelope with my name on it, or perhaps a box. And inside the envelope or the box, a journal, a carefully kept notebook where the individual chapters of her life are gathered, the ones I don’t know about.
Or maybe there won’t be anything.
Papá punished me once. I think that was the only time he did it. I didn’t understand what wrong was and he typically didn’t know how to teach me using reprimands or physical punishment, but this time it happened he did. I had insulted, hit, and spit in the face of one of those uniform-wearing classmates from school who make fun of things you don’t have. Your daddy is a man-mommy. The insult flew through the air like a dart and stuck me in the face, my angry claws closed in around her neck, three days later the marks were still there. The telephone call . . . your daughter . . . Papá’s shadow, not too tall, not too long, not too strong, everything about him was in moderation.
I never knew if they had paraphrased the insult, but I always thought that his momentary rage came from the pain that the words had caused rather than by my desire for revenge. He took it out on me. He forbid me to watch television for a whole week. He knew the real damage would be to wound my pride deeply and it came at a point in the middle of the series, so I would lose track of the plots in my favorite program at that time. It was a really addicting program full of those types of romance that never happen in real life, the kind we’d never want for ourselves but bring pleasure to other bodies.
The whole week went by and around Wednesday I had gotten over the withdrawal symptoms, I felt clean and calm. Anyways, Sunday arrived and my father came to me and asked if I was going to behave aggressively anymore. You know I won’t. Unless it’s absolutely necessary. (This I didn’t say out loud, I said it silently, deep inside, with my fingers crossed behind my back, like when you swear you aren’t telling a lie.) Then Papá took a videotape from his jacket. In the sloppy writing of the schoolboy who fails four courses and misses the whole summer making it up were the days of the week and next to each, a number.
He had recorded each day's episode, identifying it like an armed guard with his strips of tape that close off an area—obsessively. Something he wouldn’t even do for himself.
For me, love consists of these things that get jumbled together. While I was being punished, my father was saving me, sitting in the living room with the remote in hand, taking care to record around the advertisements.
Even though I hate her, my mother probably wrote me letters that she never sent, because I know there’s pain in the places where she had a pulse. The place where many women put a dab of perfume.
Mamá’s entire life fits inside the books she wrote and published. In her collections of poetry, in her two novels, in the compilations of stories and her writings in journals and other publications that I was able to gather during all this time, collecting them with patience and dedication, as if instead of her daughter I were a garbage collector or a stalker.
None of her books talks about me, her hand lifted to dash off a dedication full of trembling emotion. Nor do any of them do so in the sidebars with bold print, and there are no initials or anything. I’m not there. I still haven’t been published, as they say.
Before, whenever she published a new book, I would go into bookstores like a person who’s making an awkward purchase in a pharmacy or who goes into some store planning to rob it, but I still bought her books, like an anonymous person would buy a pornographic magazine: quickly, in a cowardly fashion, hiding it among the other things that had been purchased. Secretly, and more recently, I would do it through the internet, and would wait anxiously for the mail carrier to arrive, and I’d run the tips of my fingers sore from caressing the covers like a porn lover would do, because I thought the images were so powerful and at the same time they were so harmless, like the siblings I’m pretty sure I've never had.
I also would always google references to her work, reviews, something new to learn about what moment of her life it was, since our brief meeting every semester, that lasted the time it takes to drink three coffees and smoke half a pack of cigarettes, wasn’t long enough for me to come out of my stupor and take a good look at my emotions, an adult conversation, without all the prying questions and evasive answers. We acted like we were strangers, like a landlord who goes to collect the envelope that contains the money from the renter and stops to chat a bit with the tenant about the things that have been remodeled and how comfortable the apartment is. At the end the only thing left was for each one to return to her real world and start the new solstice, if that were needed.
See you later, Mamá, we’ll have to do this again some time.
© Emma Pedreira. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 Kathleen March. All rights reserved.