Joann KobinMatina was highlighting sentences about the disorders of pregnancy: ectopic pregnancy, toxemia, spontaneous abortion. The textbook made pregnancy sound like a vast opportunity for disease and misfortune. The more she studied, the more certain she was that obstetrics wasn't for her. She wanted to be part of a rescue team that would jump out of medically-equipped vans, descend on people holing up in derelict buildings or abandoned subway stations, and administer on-the-spot emergency care. There was a man who lived in the small park across from her father's apartment who she was sure had Parkinson's Disease. She'd open the neckline of his filthy shirt and listen to his heart. "Now hold your breath," she'd say softly, moving her stethoscope around to his back. "Now cough." She imagined sitting on the bench next to him, under a Norway maple, scribbling a prescription for the most up-to-date medication.
Gently she dumped Carlos from her lap where he'd nestled asleep while she studied, and went into the kitchen to fill his water bowl. She'd never in her life had a pet. Her father was too fastidious and her mother never wanted to spend hours in a veterinarian's waiting room.
Ever since their long-anticipated week's vacation together in Italy, she'd been hating her mother. She hadn't spoken to her since walking out of their stuffy hotel room in Milan over six weeks ago.She hated hating her because intense emotions took up more time than she had to spare. Perhaps hate was too strong a word; but dislike was too mild. Her mother's lack of focus, her vacillations, bothered her. Her mother would never be successful in her field, which had changed a hundred times, because she wasn't devoted to excellence. Excellence meant a commitment to finding the answer to some crucial question, one crucial question. Now her mother worked for the state of New Jersey in their division of solid waste management. She was one of those people responsible for shipping New Jersey's garbage to western Pennsylvania.
Matina dialed her mother's number in Weehawken. It was Saturday. The voice on the answering machine was gentle, almost syrupy, coaxing information from callers. The message that Matina left was measured. "This is your daughter. Just calling to say hello." And then, for the fun of it, she tried getting Carlos to meow into the phone.
As a second-year medical student, her life was nothing but books and lectures and observing other people doing important things. She needed a break from studying, and her small living room needed a paint job. Within a half hour she was swinging two buckets of paint up Second Avenue. Two walls bright tangerine, two walls white. Outdoors, a late afternoon wind from the river was cycloning scraps of trash and black soot around her. She swerved into Safeway and bought a pound of chicken livers.
The tangerine paint was scrumptious; it rolled on the wall like icing on a cake. She threw open windows. Her boom box was blaring an old David Byrne tape. She took another beer. When the paint was dry, she'd hang up her poster-size illustration of the circulatory system. The blues and reds would be wild against the tangerine wall. Perhaps she'd find a comparable poster of the nervous system or maybe even the female reproductive system with its graceful symmetry, its hydra-like Fallopian tubes. Carlos slunk out of the bedroom and settled on top of her feet, shackling her to the spot. Carefully she slipped her feet out from under him.
She rolled on the white paint, but the roller was oozing tangerine, marbleizing the wall. She wished that her father and his young wife, Marianne, both so neat and fussy, could see the mess she was making.
In the midst of her whirlwind of redecoration, the buzzer rang. She spoke into the apartment house phone. "Who is it?" "Mom." Her mother's voice had a pleading urgency. Matina pressed the button and pictured her mother striding into the murky lobby. She'd be wearing a black wool suit with some weird teen-agey accessories. She had scrimped on clothes in order to afford the vacation in Italy.
Matina waited to open the apartment door until she knew her mother was leaning into it. Yes, she was wearing a black wool suit, but black was no longer a viable color for her; it washed out her complexion; and the pin on her lapel wasn't teen-agey; it was downright childish -- a plastic Halloween pumpkin. Reflexively they hugged. She could feel her mother collapse ever so slightly against her. It was almost too much to bear -- the soft body sagging against her. "Sit down, Ma."
Harriet pulled herself upright, remained standing.
There was a lot to ask, to say. There was nothing to say. Matina had vowed not to talk about what had happened in Milan after her mother had flown back home: fast work -- in an elegant, high-tech, female gynecologist's office. The latest procedure, almost too quick. Uncomfortable but not unbearable. An atmosphere of stainless steel and no recriminations. If she hadn't told her boyfriend Adam -- which she still hadn't -- she wasn't going to go into details for her mother. Somewhere in the middle of Tuscany her mother had guessed she was pregnant, even before she'd realized it. Her mother was a shrewd diagnostician.
"I called first but you were out. I prayed you'd be back by the time I got here."
"Sit down, Ma," Matina repeated.
"Where? Looks pretty, honey." Harriet scanned the walls, then scanned her, her eyes X-raying her stomach with maternal worry and general grievousness, Matina thought. Harriet sank onto the couch which was sitting under a sheet in the middle of the floor. "Be careful," Matina warned; "there may be splatters on there." Harriet didn't seem to care. Matina offered yogurt, a beer, tea or coffee but her mother had already eaten dinner. In fact, she felt a little queasy. She'd had an upsetting day.
"I called you today," Matina said. "Left a message on your machine."
"Strange how each of us was thinking of the other today," Harriet said quietly, vaguely.
"I guess so," Matina replied, but the idea dawned on her for the first time that perhaps her mother wasn't suffering over her -- perhaps she had some other bad news, some suffering over someone or something else. Maybe that new man she had met in the spring, the one with the two little kids. Maybe he moved back in with his wife. Maybe her mother's job was in jeopardy -- state cutbacks, Republican belt-tightening. "So what happened today?" Matina finally asked, remembering now precisely how her mother had betrayed her: Her mother had loved the unborn baby more than her.
"Tell me about you first," Harriet said. She was glancing around the room. Matina could read her mind. The apartment was chaos. Adam had been so orderly, had such a "humanizing" impact on her. Adam was good-natured, bright, funny. Why did she have to break up with him? At heart her mother simply wanted her to marry Adam, have the baby, and give up medical school. She was exaggerating, but not a lot. Didn't her mother give her a filebox last winter with a label on top: Our Family's Best Recipes. Here she was ready for the immune system, ready to take a detailed health history on a real live patient -- and her mother gives her recipes for sweet and sour stringbeans and chicken with tarragon.
"How are you, darling?" Harriet asked again.
"I'm fine, Mom."
"You look okay. Are you, honey? Are you feeling well?
"I'm fine." She picked up the roller and started blotting over the orange streaks.
"Were you studying?"
"The complications of pregnancy. Toxemia, stuff like that. Spontaneous abortion." She knew her mother would squirm, and she did.
"I'd like to help you paint," Harriet offered.
"I don't know if I have another roller."
"If you have a brush I can do the window frames."
She turned down the offer because her mother would make the job more complicated than it was. "Ma, what happened today?"
"Trivial stuff. If I tell you, it really won't add up to why I got so shaken."
The cat was whimpering behind the closed bedroom door. Matina flicked the switch on the David Byrne tape. Her mother asked for it off. She couldn't take the sound right now. The cat's meows escaped notice.
"What happened, Ma?"
Her mother was reluctant to explain. It didn't add up. It had to do with a plan for meeting a woman she had met last spring at a conference about changing careers. The woman, Paula Palladino, a photographer, had liked her and promised to get in touch so that they could talk at greater length. After months she finally called and invited her out to a Spanish restaurant, a place that served tapas, those wonderful little appetizers. "Tapas," Harriet said, then stopped abruptly. "Matina, it's stupid and trivial."
"Continue anyway, Ma."
"I'd rather not," her mother said. "Did I tell you about the pamphlet my office just published? 'Reduce, Recycle, Burn and Bury'?"
"Ma, what about the tapas?"
Her mother explained how she and Paula Palladino made plans to meet at Paula's apartment at 4:30, have drinks, then go to a terrific Spanish restaurant. "I was looking forward to the amazing tapas." Her mother paused. "It all sounds silly now," she said.
"Well, what happened? Did the restaurant run out of tapas?" Her mother reminded her that the story would sound nonsensical, the whole thing trivial. "Please go on," Matina urged, as she rolled out the creamy white paint, eclipsing the orange streaks. Meanwhile Carlos' whining grew louder.
Harriet sat bolt upright. "What's that sound?"
"I found a cat at the laundromat. But continue... about the tapas."
"You have a cat?" Harriet murmured, and sighed. She tried to condense the story. "The gist of it is that by the time I got to Paula's apartment, it was as if the woman had forgotten why she ever wanted to get together with me. Her phone was constantly ringing and she was answering it -- talking to people with names like Natalya, Sheng, Roberto, Ivan. She was on a conference call with the world, while I waited and waited for her."
Matina had finished the white walls and stepped into the kitchen to wash out the roller. "Ma, go on, I can hear you from here," and Harriet continued. "Finally Paula let the answering machine take the calls and went inside to change her clothes -- while I waited some more. She came out ten minutes later wearing some ancient-looking jewelry that looked like it came from an archeological dig -- it was still dusty. And we went out, supposedly heading for the Spanish restaurant with the famous tapas. But you know where she took me?" Matina appeared in the doorway.
"To the Copper Kettle for hamburgers?"
"Close. To Peking Gardens."
"That old run-down place!"
"Yes, but I wouldn't go inside. I said, 'Paula, I thought we were going for tapas.' 'Oh I forgot. I'm so pressed for time,' she said, checking her watch. 'I must have forgotten to mention the lecture at seven-thirty at the museum. . ., and the service at Toledo's is so damned slow.' I could barely keep from crying. I was shrinking to the size of the Rolodex card she had probably made out for me. At the Changing Careers conference I was important, big, a Renaissance woman; now I was expendable."
"It probably had nothing to do with you," Matina said.
"It hurt my feelings, Matina. I do have feelings. Sometimes you're too cold-
She apologized, didn't mean to sound cold, was just trying to figure out why her mother was so affected by this Paula character who sounded like a bimbo. Meanwhile Carlos, parked on the other side of the bedroom door, was whining. Her mother looked pained. "Let 'im out. I can't stand that wailing."
Matina opened the bedroom door and Carlos sprang forward, headed straight towards Harriet and circled around her, leapt onto her lap, and soon settled down and closed his round yellow eyes.
"What did I do to deserve this?" Harriet asked, inspecting the cat but not touching him.
"Isn't he sweet?" Matina mumbled; "but go on with your story. Did you succumb to Moo-Goo Gai Pan?"
"No, although Paula had the nerve to say that the fried dumplings were a lot like a certain kind of tapas. But I told her, 'I'm going to Toledo's; if you want to join me, fine,' and then I turned around and marched across the street and made my way to Columbus Avenue. I found Toledo's. Paula was nowhere in sight.
Harriet glanced down at the sleeping Carlos, finally touching him. "Look Matina, look at your pussycat. One minute he was wide awake and inquisitive, the next moment he's sleeping."
"Did you finally get your tapas, Ma?"
"Yes, I did, and they were delicious. Spicy little tidbits, tiny dishes of meat and sauces, and fish, and olives... I had two glasses of Spanish champagne."
"Is that the end of the story? Ma, you should be proud. You were decisive. You didn't let yourself be controlled by her." She always tried to praise her mother's assertiveness.
"It should be the end, but it wasn't, Matina. There's more..." she hesitated, but Matina urged her on. "Your father and Marianne came into the restaurant. It sounds unbelievable but it's true. They didn't see me. I wanted to ignore them but I couldn't: they were gazing at each other and whispering and touching each other. Marianne seemed sad but your father was as tender as he could be. He took her hand and held it on top of the table for about ten minutes. He started kissing her fingertips."
Matina squinched her face in disgust. "They were probably on their way back from a fertility specialist."
"Why do you say that?" Harriet asked.
Matina shrugged. "I'm sure that Marianne must be desperate to have a baby and anyway, that neighborhood is a beehive of obstetric offices."
"Your father was so interested in her, so sweet."
"Yes, it is hard to watch," Matina said, glancing at her mother, then looking away.
Harriet stared across the room and said, "I wish I had one great talent -- like a huge wave that would simply carry me along for a while. Sometimes I'm so disappointed in myself; I have no great gift. And now I think I'm fading."
Matina's mouth curled down as she gazed at her mother. For a fleeting second she was sure that her mother was talking about wanting a grandchild -- that would be the gift -- not a great talent. "Mother," she said strictly, "you're talking nonsense..."
Carlos shivered awake and stood up on all fours on Harriet's lap, then jumped to the floor and raced into the bedroom. Matina wanted to do the same. Her mother was rambling now, getting diffuse and vague, growing soggy and sorry. She disliked those qualities so much and hoped she hadn't inherited them. Doctors were so different. Matina marched into the kitchen and began to sauté chicken livers.
"Carlos has classical cat whiskers," Harriet called in.
"I think he's adorable," Matina said loudly. "I rescued him from a life of homelessness and hunger."
"Can I help you get this apartment squared away, honey?"
"Not really, Mom. I'll have to re-touch some spots in the morning."
For a few minutes each of them was quiet. Standing in front of the stove, pushing chicken livers around with a fork, Matina thought about her mother's words, I'm fading. Fading hardly described her mother, who, if anything, still seemed to have an incandescent glow. She slid the pan off the heat and went back into the living room. "Ma," she said, sitting down on the couch next to her mother, "you're in a very strong position." She lectured her mother about concentrating on her work, on the specific -- and she emphasized specific -- contribution she could make. "Ma, you're an administrator. You're a VIP in New Jersey solid waste. You're going to get a big promotion. You're on the cutting edge of an important new field. You're making more and more public appearances. Be proud! You're a policy-maker. Your program is setting the standard for communities across the country. Maintain your focus on garbage."
"Matina, sometimes I start thinking about all the things that threaten our environment, not just solid waste. Do you realize that there are more fossil fuel reserves than we imagined ten or fifteen years ago? More oil, more coal, more natural gas. Enormous coal reserves in China which China is determined to use. Do you understand what that means for the greenhouse effect?"
"Garbage, Mother! Garbage. Stick with New Jersey's 11 million tons of garbage per year."
"That's amazing, sweetheart. You remember the exact tonnage!"
Matina moved back to the tiny kitchen. "Ma, are you sure you don't want some chicken livers?" Harriet shook her head. She was still full from tapas. In fact, she had a case of heartburn. Matina handed her some Maalox tablets, then set the plate of mashed chicken livers on the living room floor. "Chow time, Carlos!"
"They look delicious," Harriet said. "You're becoming a good cook. Why don't you have them instead of giving them to Carlos, honey?" Matina shook her head, and her mother smiled softly. "It's amazing. You remember the exact tonnage."
"Ma, I'm going to have to leave you for a while. I have a midnight date with a pediatric resident I met last week -- at the hospital cafeteria." Harriet looked disappointed. Her mother had hoped to lure her back to Weehawken to stay overnight, have brunch in the morning, take a few hours off from her books. "I wish I could go with you, but I can't," Matina said. "I have this date and an important exam on Monday. Why don't you sleep here tonight. I'll only be gone an hour or so." Matina called Carlos again, and headed to the bedroom to find him. "Chow time, Carlos!"
Her eyes inspected the small room. Flat on her stomach, Matina searched under the bed, under the dresser. Where was he! She pushed and hurled clothes and shoes and boxes around in her closet. "Mom," she screamed, "I can't find him."
"I'm sure he's here," her mother said; "where could he go?" Harriet moved the couch and raised the sheet that Matina had used as a drop cloth. She looked under the desk and behind it. Perhaps the top of the bookcase or in the cabinet under the kitchen sink. Matina checked the bathroom, pulling the shower curtain back expectantly, but Carlos wasn't in the bathtub. "He's jumped out the bedroom window," she said, staring at the open window, then raising it as high as it would go and leaning out. She felt the life draining out of her own body. There was no meowing from the street, and she couldn't see a thing. The window was a black hole. Her life was vacant, dead and powdery like a planetary landscape. Dry, dry... shelves of grim textbooks full of wretched disease. The body, a cathedral of death.
"Let me search your closet. I'm sure he didn't leap out the window."
"I'm sure he did; and I'm going out to look for him," Matina announced. Her mother insisted on going with her.
Matina examined the sidewalk. Nothing. Her mother suggested they look in the alley and then walk up to the corner and around to the avenue and back on the other side of the street.
"Carlos, Carlos...," both of them took turns calling. Passers-by were indifferent.
"He's gone," Matina moaned and her mother thought they should give it one more shot and try heading in the opposite direction. She experienced a moment of hope: Carlos had headed back to the laundromat where she originally found him. "Maybe he has loved ones who still live at the laundromat, Ma." Her mother nodded and put her arm around her. It was dark, starless, chilly. She didn't mind the weight of her mother's arm. Her mother -- and even her father -- loved her so much, too much; and realizing that made her feel like crying for them.
The laundromat was bright and lively, with dryers turning, clothes tumbling and twisting, washing machines bubbling. Carlos wasn't there. "Did you happen to see a medium-sized solid gray cat with a white bib and three white paws?" Harriet asked a young man folding clothes. "No," he replied, but I saw an orangey one."
On the way back to her apartment, Matina didn't feel like talking. Her mother said, "You could get another cat, sweetheart." She didn't want another cat but she was too worn out to get angry. Her life was nothing but good-byes. She was so tired of good-byes. There was no turning back. Flexible -- what she should be but couldn't; only Carlos would do, no other cat. She was tired, so tired.
They passed a late-night deli-grocery store. Her mother wanted to buy her oranges, a cantaloupe, Twinkies. She declined. The brightness of the store frightened her.
Outside the building , she had trouble finding her keys. Her hands were shaking as she fished through her shoulder bag. She could tell that her mother's patience was wearing thin. All they needed now was to be locked out and have to track down the telephone number of the elusive superintendent. Finally she let her mother search her bag, and within seconds her mother located her keyring.
The apartment smelled of paint, was more chaotic than Matina remembered. Had the place been robbed and ransacked?
"Look," Harriet said, "the chicken livers are gone! Carlos is here -- I knew it!" Her mother's voice had a silvery ring, an unexpected radiance.
A great weight lifted from Matina, as though she had been rescued from a crushed vehicle and could breathe again and move her limbs, and no vital part was missing. She went into her bedroom. He was on the middle of her bed, waiting. His eyes were open -- round and buttery yellow. Shutting the door, she buried her face in his soft fur. She could feel the tiny thumping of his heart. Then she cried, making sure her mother couldn't hear. She cried and cried, all the while holding back any sound that might have betrayed her. She froze the sobs before they could escape. She was sucking a mouthful of ice cubes.
After a while she got up and brushed her hair. She opened the bedroom door. "Ma," she said, "sleep in my bed. I'll be fine on the couch." She scurried around the bedroom, tidying up, straightening the bed, putting a fresh pillowcase on the pillow. She found a large clean white T-shirt that her mother could use as a nightgown.
"Who is this guy anyway -- is he nice?" Harriet asked as she slipped off her suit jacket and began to undress.
"A sweet guy," Matina said; "and he'll be a terrific pediatrician. He actually likes children."
"What's his name?"
"Derek." She paused a second or two. "Derek Dodge." Then she hugged her mother and kissed her and noted as she always did in the past year or two, how soft her mother's cheeks were. They seemed to be getting softer and softer, like fine old silk.
"Have fun," Harriet said lightly.
"Will you be okay here?" Matina asked. "The place is a mess. Do you want something to read? The TV is working."
"I'll be fine, really."
"There's beer in the fridge, also soda and some yogurt and orange juice," Matina said as she pinned her plastic I.D. card to the lapel of her white jacket and threw on a rain poncho, and headed out the door for the hospital.
She walked fast but without fear, as though her tiny I.D. were an enormous shield that would protect her from every possible danger. Inside the hospital, past the night guard, she inhaled the building's fabulous scent, a blend of vinyl floors and wax, disinfectant, formaldehyde, and mashed potatoes. She listened to the hum of the hospital, the almost-audible current of healing. She had no plans to meet a second-year pediatric resident, no date with anyone at all.
At her locker she picked up her stethoscope and draped it around her neck,
and put her reflex hammer in the pocket of her white jacket, and hurried to
the staff cafeteria. She bought a plateful of food and a cup of coffee and carried
her tray to a table half-filled with residents and interns. They ignored her
but she didn't care. She loved listening to them talk and laugh, and when they
cracked jokes -- terrible ones and good ones -- about overwrought patients and
bad surgeons, about unnecessary cesareans and unaccountable hemorrhages, about
life and dying, she tried to laugh too.