I had prepared my answer. I had practiced it in the mirror between applications of lip gloss. I knew when she asked exactly how I would respond: “Yes, yes, damn it. End of story.” And it would be a lie.
We did Mother’s Day because Mom claimed to have forgotten her birthday (at the behest of her publicist). Mother’s Day, however, she took as hers.
“That I’m a mother, I’m sure. You, Little Beast, made sure I’d sit up and notice ? epidural or no. We must remember that the etymological root of mother and martyr is the same,” Mom brayed, sounding very much like one of her own essays, the kind laden with balmy, wistful observations of some exotic locale that inevitably end with an equally embellished, if impossible, recipe.
“One wonders why Christ wasn’t a woman. Probably be too good at it. Healing the sick, fussing with runny noses,” she paused, re-lit a roach, and then purred. “Getting nailed by Romans. . ..”
A lump in her breast had recently landed her at an ashram where she learned to stave off cancer with visualization and marijuana. Though the lump was later found to be benign, she maintained a regimen of preventative care – whenever, wherever.
“That is illegal you know.”
“It’s outdoors. Nature. Ashes to ashes. We’re in L.A. Who gives a rat’s ass?”
“We’re at a restaurant.”
“It’s not a restaurant, dear, it’s a tapas bar.”
Mom had discovered tapas when writing for a gourmand magazine that eventually drifted into soft porn as its publishing mandate had become irretrievably contorted after a drunken office party. Later, she concentrated on writing books, chiding me for being single ? and dope.
Her lips whistled around the shrinking ember, which accentuated her lantern jaw, already set off by her short, sandy hair. She was a circus of scarves and shawls, and could have easily played Peter Pan if she weren’t so damn tall.
Diego, our waiter attempted a compliment while surreptitiously adding an ashtray to our tableware. “Your sister?” he asked me.
This did not impress my mother who thinks flattery should come in the form of designer tchotchkies from faraway friends – usually strapping gay men drenched in cologne, their hairless, bronzed feet naked in their sandals.
Moreover, at 30, I’m not about to accept the notion of sororal likeness to a woman twice my age. Sisters. Unlike some mother-daughter relationships, ours has not matured into a chatty friendship, a sibling-like bond ? we are not “best friends.” From the onset, it was evident that we could never model for, say, Madonna and Child. More like the Bitch and Bastard.
My twice-divorced father never came to this annual brunch. He was the kind of man who seemed to be perpetually stepping off a boat. He ate scores of rabbit, drank retsina and regaled young women with stories about art thieves and mythical college chums. He wore a beard trimmed with rococo intricacies and made impulsive purchases of such items as an ivory drafting pencil set, a steamer trunk that wouldn’t fit through the door and a schnauzer he named Winston. On my 16th birthday, he opened a bottle of wine with a samarai sword and all my girlfriends fell madly in love with him. His saddest moment, he says, was when he parked his vintage sportster “in the ocean.”
Though he loved my mother madly, he said she made him feel like an “old black and white photograph – bent corners and all.” I know what he meant, for any color that we could muster in our own lives would be absorbed by my mother’s dazzling hue. Neither of us is as brilliant as she; we are the dim stars in the familial constellation.
“Aren’t you going to eat,” Mom begged, a doleful eye upon the sprig of foliage that was my salad.
“I am eating. I’m on a diet.”
“That’s not a diet, that’s a hunger strike,” she reprimanded, then called, “Diego!”
“Yes, Madame?” our waiter asked breathlessly. He had applesauce strewn on his coat from a two year-old dominating another table.
“Get this girl a roast beef sandwich,” my mother ordered, then turned to me. “Really, you look damn near anemic. You need iron. You’ll get your period and pass out.”
“Stop being so controlling.”
“I’m not being controlling. I’m trying to feed you. Force feed you if necessary.”
“Would you like horseradish on the side, miss?” poor Diego lobbed into our fray.
I nodded listlessly, but Mom protested. “Don’t be such a plain Jane. Smother the damn thing. I want it to wake the dead.”
Mom took another hit off her joint and passed it to Diego who, somewhat taken aback, took a sheepish drag and returned, hunch-shouldered and giggling into the kitchen. Then she suddenly reached across the table and adjusted my sweater, ruining the incidental decolletage I had carefully engineered from a missing button and a push-up bra.
“Suggestive clothing works better, leaves something to the imagination ? and trust me, Doll, a man’s imagination is going to be better than anything under there.”
Her off-hand raillery was a professional trademark, garnered her mention in magazines and made her an interesting guest on National Public Radio, but stung worse than jellyfish.
“There you are. Five years old again. You’re one in a million, Sophie Dover, which in a city of 12 million such as Los Angeles means that there are 11 more of you,” she backhanded. “Don’t let those little bitches get your job ? or your man.”
She paused as if paying her respects to the inevitable romantic query to follow – a moment she relished as it made me visibly squirm. I took a bite of my sandwich to pass the time.
“Speaking of which,” her enveloping eyes locked on me, flickering almost conspiratorially, “Got a man?”
She had finally asked the question and as I was about to unreel my rehearsed answer, I was overwhelmed by a blaze of horseradish that had kindled in my nostrils and caused me to sputter.
“No. You know, not yet.”
“You oughta be.”
I had betrayed my imaginary boyfriend again, with the truth.
A placidity washed over my mother’s face. She looked suddenly like she did when I was a child. Once I went on assignment with her to the Serengeti ? I spied a pride of lions and noticed that my mother crossed her arms wrist to fist like a great lioness, irresistibly composed.
I had answered correctly.