Remember Stella? That night in the apartment with the sexy family, the
freighted ferret, New York smeared across the windows like a jam made of
stars. After that, Stella lived in Los Angeles, and it was exactly like
her favorite Thorne Room in the basement of the Art Institute of Chicago,
1940s California Interior, city lights, green velvet drapes. But
time marches on, and now Stella is in her mid-thirties, divorced, and
lives in Connecticut. Her mother has cancer.
One chemotherapy treatment has taken Stella's mother's voluble and
abundant hair, the mane that at her mother's request Stella colored
iridescent pink gold with drugstore dye the day before the mastectomy,
that indomitable mass excised, leaving only curls of wispy gray fuzz. Now
Stella's mother looks like Stella's grandfather. In her sharp red beret,
she looks like a cardinal. She looks like Stella's mother in a wig.
She has a good sense of humor about it. Both of them do, really. On the
phone, Stella apologetically complains about the women in her Connecticut
Pilates class, how normal they are, their talk of television cooks and
Florida winters, and her mother says, "I hear you. Just imagine how
denigrated the discourse in your average cancer center is." It keeps
Stella up nights: her powerful mother making nice through an endless
parade of pleasantries as helpful poisons are dripped into the port in her
chest. They put it on the other side, the side they didn't cut.
At home, home is now two places: the house in which she grew up, which her
parents are very slowly emptying, and a slick new condo in a tower the
next town over, where Stella's mother lives alone. This arrangement has
been grueling, but they are also fine. When she visits Stella stays there
with her mother, wrestling with piles of books and blankets and the Tivo
and sleeping in a kind of pup tent on the living room floor. Every night
her father comes over to take them to dinner.
One afternoon at the condo Stella is at her mother's computer, in the
close dark of the tiny study replicated from its more spacious home
iteration. She is trying to fix some problems, buy some plane tickets, and
also some clothes, because that is what she does when life weighs too
much, even though she has a PhD.
There is a knock at the apartment door. Her mother, who was supposed to be
napping, calls, "Who is it?"
"Management," responds a high voice.
No Management has been requested, but the voice insists the door be
opened. Stella's mother goes to it bareheaded.
"Hi Tammy, I know you're going through some things," the voice says,
apologetically. "But we can't have you—"
Stella is out of her seat, out of the study. Who is this person addressing
her mother, Tamara D'Oro, as "Tammy"? No one save for her father is
allowed to call her mother Tammy.
In the threshold stands an over-groomed embarrassed-looking young woman.
The ridiculous person in charge of the desk downstairs. Her name, Stella
remembers, is Nono.
"What's the problem?" Stella asks, putting her body between her mother and
Nono's thickly lined eyes.
"I was just telling Tammy that we can't leave cardboard in the trash chute
Stella is an artist and a scholar. She reminds herself that the impulse to
tell Nono to address her mother as Mrs. D'Oro is but a flimsy and useless
vestige of the patriarchal capitalist hegemony that entraps them both. But
she really, really wants to.
Stella herself reported the problem of the cardboard on her last visit, in
fact, after some new people—all the people on her mother's floor seem to
be doctors younger than Stella—left their stack of unflattened Hermes
boxes clogging the trash area. Nothing was done. Nothing has ever been
done, and now Nono has the nerve to show up calling her mother Tammy?
"That's not our cardboard," Stella says.
"Yes, it is," Nono says. "Tammy," she adds hopefully. Stella's mother has
gone back into the room where the television is.
"Show me," Stella says, and follows Nono down the hall, hating her, her
dumb highlights, her too-high voice, her total lack of qualification for
anything. Ever. She wants to write a letter. But to whom?
In the chute area is a giant box addressed to her mother.
"I'll take it down," Stella says.
Nono fixes her with a goldfish's dumb task-driven gaze. "Will you be doing
that in the next five to ten minutes?"
Stella stares. She is accustomed to being heard. Who is this woman? There
was a creepy intimacy in the way she said Tammy, as if she paid Stella's
mother rather than the other way around. How she wishes to yell.
When, five minutes later, she hustles the cardboard down through the
lobby, she doesn't make eye contact with Nono in her box. She knows her
rage is a hateful symptom of late capitalism. And that she loves her
mother, Tamara D'Oro, never Tammy, and Tamara D'Oro's hair and hands and
the collection of fine art books now crammed haphazardly into the
apartment and packed in boxes that will be ruined by the flood that hits
the house the next morning, before her flight out.
The night before she came Stella got tipsy and voluble at a work thing,
holding forth on tact, elder abuse, and her recent colonoscopy, her very
first. Someone ordered appetizers. A hunk of pork under a hunk of
something else. A bulb of cheese. Onion confetti. Everyone looked aghast.
She smiled into her lap. What can she say, what can she say, Stella still
likes to flash her flinty little charm, even though people can see her
now. Even though she's not a ghost, not anymore.
- - -
Read her micros.
W i g l e a f