I dreamed last night that I was screaming at my mother. The dream came
after my son had called out to me in the middle of the night, I have no
idea what time. My only clock is my phone and I try not to look at it at
night. I went and lay down with my son, fell asleep in his bed for a few
minutes or hours, then woke and went back to mine.
Then I dreamed I was screaming at my mother, with a kind of rage I can't
feel in waking life, so pure and totalizing it has a color but the color
has no name. I don't know.
Sometimes the screams were barely audible and in the dream I was
desperately gathering strength to make them loud. Sometimes it worked.
Then my alarm, which is my phone, went off. In bed next to me, Mikey
either slept through the alarm or pretended to. I shut it off, rolled onto
my stomach, and masturbated. Mikey either slept through it or pretended
to. I was quiet, and it was quick. Then I got up.
My friend Jeffrey's dad died about a month ago. We talked for the first
time last weekend, just texting, while I sat in my car in the driveway
waiting for my son to wake from his nap. My son is three years old. As he
sleeps in his car seat, his lower lip puffs out, petal red and wet with
Jeffrey was there when his father died. He flew on a red-eye to make it
there in time, and he did make it, by just a few hours. They were long
hours, Jeffrey says, sitting around the hospital, thinking it could happen
any minute or not happen at all. Then afterward it was like no time had
Like giving birth, I text him, and then quietly panic that I've
said something awful.
He writes, Exactly.
I get tears in my eyes.
It's the perfect exactly, I think, waiting for him to write again.
Exactly as inexact as what I just said. He doesn't know what I'm talking
about and I don't know what he's talking about, but there's a mutual will
to believe each other.
Or maybe it's just a pass, him knowing I don't know the right thing to
say, that no one does, him being too tired to give tutorials on grief
It's good that you— I begin, but then his next text comes in and I
It sounds like a bad movie scene, he types. Maybe even a good movie scene,
but he swears when his dad died it was like years of anger and
disappointment dissolved. He was crying. All year he'd been crying about
his dad, in counseling with Gaby, who went with him so he didn't have to
go alone. But this crying was different, it was so—
Unembarrassed, I think, because the word is right in front of me,
in his text message. Still, I encounter it as if I had thought it first.
I could just let go, Jeff writes. I know that sounds—
He writes more, a lot more, and I'm glad he's telling me, I want him to. I
want to interrupt and tell him I love him, that Mikey loves him, that
we're here for him, whatever here for means. I don't interrupt, my
excess of love is off topic. I listen—text-listening, which means I can
turn around to check on my son, who is utterly still. A drawing teacher
once told me portraits of children don't count as portraits. Children are
too featureless, too much like apples. This was high school, the teacher a
Unembarrassed, I think later, at the sink washing dinner dishes. My
son's in the living room shooting Mikey with a cardboard tube, singing the
weapon's sound, "p'chew, p'chew!"
My mother has fatty tumors in her arms. The last time we were there, in
Chicago, she made me feel them.
"See?" she said. She pushed up her sweater sleeve and extended her
freckled forearm. I gently squeezed, first near her wrist, then up by her
elbow, and felt the little lumps around the bone. "But they don't change
at all," she said. "I think that's good, that they don't change at all."
"Definitely," I said.
She's a lawyer, has an office in a skyscraper. Commandeers her black BMW
down the Kennedy expressway every morning, blows the on-ramp stoplight
because she doesn't believe in it. I used to know a lot of people with
fathers like this.
A woman my mother knows socially is sexually open in a way that stresses
her out. "Every time I see her, she hugs me," my mother said, also on that
last visit, the same day she showed me her tumors. "But then she like rubs
her breasts against mine, I swear. It's like this," my mother said, and
grabbed me, and showed me.
"Mom," I said.
"I'm sorry!" she cried. "But that's what it's like, it's so
My mother is sixty-two. Once, in a box of her old things, I found her
teenage diary. Entry after entry, in plump, pretty cursive, were earnest
prayers that she make the cheerleading team. Then an entry
announcing she'd made it, larded with promises to God to be good and do
all he asked of her. After that, the book is blank.
A few women I know get tipsy and inhabit a character with brittle loud
laughter telling awful stories. They drink and say, in front of everyone
at the party, "it'd be different if my mother had loved me," then laugh
and dig their nails into my arm.
It's acting. I like it. I say, "I know, baby. I know, I know."
I know a little about their parents. Bonnie's mother lay her down on the
counter when she was nine and tried to cut her hair with a kitchen knife.
Bridget's mother showed Bridget The Exorcist to make her go to
church. There are so many personality disorders to read about. Each of us
is hurting the most. Each of us is fine.
Colleen O'Brien is the author of SPOOL IN THE MAZE, a work of poetry that was published by New Michigan
Press. She has fiction in or coming from Willow Springs, North American Review, Texas Review,
Ninth Letter and others.
Read her postcard.
Detail of photo on main page courtesy
W i g l e a f