In college, my friend Maggie and I would attempt to wear out our insomnia by walking from our dorms through all of Bowling Green’s past lives to get to a bridge rusted with memory of use. Past the downtown square, past the “historically black” part of Bowling Green, past the warehouse district. The whole way we would talk about the kind of things that can only be said at 2 am in an abandoned part of town. It must have taken an hour to get there, longer if we took a detour through the old cemetery and read the gravestones of confederate soldiers. We hardly ever saw anyone else during these walks, as if we were the only ones compelled by the opposite of sleep, and maybe a breed of sadness, to roam the dark.
At the bridge, we would lean against the rails, flakes of rust sticking to the palms of our hands, and look down at Barren River. There was nothing much to see, but reaching the bridge always felt like we had built something. We would look over the dark water and then stare at the other end of the bridge, always relieved to be too tired to walk to the other side.
Five years and a funeral later, I dream I’m driving across that same bridge with my mother in the passenger seat. A bright, cloudless afternoon, music is playing on the radio and the windows are rolled down. My mother keeps waving her suddenly wild hair out of her face. We are laughing or, at least, I hear laughter.
The bridge is different in daylight; under this bright sky, the bridge does not end. Driving at 40 miles an hour, we have been crossing this bridge all day, but mother does not notice. She keeps waving strands of hair out of her eyes and switching radio stations. Music is playing but I can’t hear the music. The bridge keeps going and, with one hand still on the wheel, I reach over and touch her hand.
I put my hand back on the wheel, but the part of her hand that I touched turns an iridescent blue, tinged with green. Soon, a peacock stain marks where I touched my mother and we stare at each other.
This is how I know she is dead.
She tries to apologize, but I look back at the road ahead and press down on the gas. The bridge just won’t stop.
A blink and we are in a white linoleum tiled bathroom, both of us standing in the empty bathtub. The peacock stain has spread from her hand to the rest of her arm. She tries again to apologize, but I grab her by the collar of her shirt and shove her against the wall. I hold her there as curses I can’t hear race out of my mouth.
This is the first time I have dreamed of my mother since her passing. Gasping, I wake in my apartment in Harlem. A bright, cloudless morning, just like on the bridge. The sobs are so violent, my chest hurts.
For months now, I have been waiting, hopefully, for her to appear in my dreams. I thought she would answer some questions, or just sit beside me, but instead, I hurt her. Each time I slam my eyes shut, I see my mother pressed against the tiled wall, struggling to keep her balance in the tub, her shirt collar still in my grip, the back of her head banging against the tile, her eyes locked on mine. And I know exactly where this part of the dream comes from.
One morning, my junior year of high school, an unspoken argument between us broke open. I cannot even remember what the matter was, but I remember saying, “I love you so much. You’re the best mother anyone could want” over and over with as much venom in my voice as I could muster. With each repetition, she slapped me. I love you so much. Slap. You’re the best mother anyone could want. Slap. I said it until my eyes starting shining with tears, then I started screaming it.
My mother, several inches shorter than me, grabbed the collar of my shirt and pinned me against the sliding glass doors of the patio. I remember feeling myself lifted onto the tips of my toes. My voice was hoarse and the words leaving my mouth sounded other-worldly. While I shouted, she shouted back except her words were inaudible as if she were literally chewing them. It was like we were pushing each other to the edge of a cliff. I wondered if the glass door would crack against the pressure of my body.
Finally, exhausted, she let go and watched the stranger I had become run out of the apartment. Like the actual impetus for the fight, whatever happened next is a blank. All that remains is the single ugliest moment between the two of us. My mother and I at our worst.
That is the memory that comes hurtling to me when I wake up from the dream. Maybe I am sobbing not because of the dream itself, but out of the fear that this is what all of my dreams about my mother will be like. Brutal memories, distorted and looped. I love you so much. You’re the best mother anyone could want. I am almost certain I said those exact sentences while holding my brain dead mother’s hand in her ICU room.
Through the glass revolving door that separates airport departures from arrivals, I see my mother before she sees me. Caught in a shaft of afternoon sunlight, she stands apart from a crowd of passengers in the baggage claim. I pause on my side of the glass long enough to watch her hesitate for a moment, deciding if she should keep her sunglasses on or push them up into her hair. I have lectured her before about wearing sunglasses indoors – like a celebrity. “It cuts you off from people,” goes my refrain.
As I approach, she gives a shout, pushes her sunglasses up into her hair and wraps her arms around me. More so than hug her back, I succumb to my mother’s hug the way all adult sons do. It’s not that I don’t want to hug her, but the intensity of my hugs are no match for the ones she gives me whenever I come to visit. There are words exchanged during these hugs but they are indecipherable. If she pulls away for a moment, it is only so she can take another look at me – you’re here, you’re finally here – and then we are hugging again. When mom’s sunglasses fall out of her hair, we take it as a cue. I pick them up off the floor for her, then wait for my suitcase to make its way along the conveyer belt. She wipes an errant tear from her eye and puts her sunglasses back on. As we head for the exit, a group of soldiers is greeted with applause as they pass through the revolving door to meet their families in the baggage claim.
When we step into her apartment, I put down my suitcase and follow mom to her Buddhist altar, the same one that has been a part of our household my entire life. We take our seats, mom rings the bell three times, and we do sansho together. Sansho is a short Nicherin Buddhist prayer of gratitude for making it safely home.
After the prayer, which only takes a few moments, we turn toward one another. That’s when the silence pools and eddies around our feet like water. This silence has taken the place of Kingsley, our cocker spaniel, who used to sleep so heavily that he wouldn’t wake up from his spot in mom’s bed until he heard her ring the prayer bell during sansho. Only then, he’d rush out into the living room to greet us, a gleeful mass of black and white fur. Kingsley died a few months ago in bed with mom while she held him in her arms, trying to comfort him. She called me that night and tried to tell me what had happened but ended up just holding the phone in her hand, unable to speak.
To ward off Kingsley’s silence, she apologizes for not going to the grocery store before picking me up from the airport. “We’ll have to be creative,” she says. Her apology is as much about avoiding Kingsley as it about telling me (without actually telling me) that money has been tight lately.
“Oh, I’m not even hungry!” I say too emphatically for it to be true.
While she goes into her bedroom, I peek into the refrigerator and wince at the almost empty carton of milk, block of cheddar cheese, and remaining slices of bread. Is this all she has had to eat this week? I decide that when we go to the grocery store later, I’ll make sure to buy much more food than I will need for my few days in town so that she has groceries for the rest of the week. When I hear her coming out of her room, I rush to the other side of the kitchen.
“So,” she says with extra syllables as she leans against the counter, “Europe! Tell me.”
“All of it? Pick a city.”
The first snapshot that surfaces is of a gay bathhouse in the Marais, but instead I tell her about how elegant all the women were, about my allergies getting irritated from all of the second-hand smoke in the cafes, about getting the hang of the Metro. The tea kettle whistles and I pour hot water into the oatmeal while I keep talking. Only when hot water spills over the counter and onto my feet do I look down at my mistake. I never bothered to get a bowl. Instead, I’ve been making the oatmeal directly on the kitchen counter. When I pour the water – even as I’ve realized this I haven’t stopped – the oatmeal spills across the counter and onto the floor.
How neither of us could notice what I was doing baffles me. We both stare as the oatmeal swirls in the milky-white water. Inappropriately late and with an unnecessary harshness, she asks, “What are you doing?”
Still silent in my bewilderment, I stare at the mess, then back at her. We stare at each other until we realize the real mistake. I look around the apartment as if for the first time. Neither of us should be here.
Mom was living in Atlanta when Kingsley died, but this apartment is in Lewisville, TX. She hasn’t lived here for several years now. And I didn’t go to Europe until after she died.
Across the kitchen, my mother holds my stare. I want to apologize but have forgotten how to speak to her. With a sense that she can hear my thoughts, I think, “You’re dreaming again. Mom’s been dead for five months now.” She nods in agreement, exhausted with helping me keep up this lie.
“What are you doing?” she says without saying, then light shatters the room.
Awake, covered in sweat and gasping, I hold onto the bed as if to withstand the nausea that these kind of dreams always induce. The moment of realization in these dreams always feels like I’m on an elevator plummeting to the first floor. The dropping sensation stays with me for the first few seconds of waking.
As my breathing slows, I ask the dark room, “Where am I?” I honestly don’t know. I’ve been winding through Europe for the last three weeks and, at this instant, I honestly believe I could be anywhere, including my mother’s apartment. Leaning over the edge of my bunk bed, I see my snoring roommate, a blonde college student from Australia. I remember her inviting me to go with her on a pub crawl along Las Ramblas. This is Barcelona; this is the beginning of my last day in Spain.
I think: “You’ve got to stop doing this to yourself.” But then – as always – I think: “What else is there?” I roll over, go back to sleep, and wait for mom to walk back into the kitchen with paper towels for the mess I’ve made.
A 2011 Pushcart Prize Nominee, SAEED JONES received his MFA from Rutgers University – Newark. His work has appeared in publications like Hayden’s Ferry Review, StorySouth, Jubilat & The Collagist. He is a regular contributor to Ebony.com & Lambda Literary. His chapbook When the Only Light is Fire is available from Sibling Rivalry Press. He’s received fellowships from Queer / Arts / Mentorship as well as Cave Canem.