My mother reached out to steady herself against the wall of soup. Her fingertips brushed against a Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom, knocking it askew in a otherwise undisturbed column of cans.
“Oh gosh, Gabby, my vertigo is so bad.”
She paused, teetering on the beige tiled floor of the QFC. I couldn’t see her face, but even from behind I could imagine her eyes closing dramatically the way they always did, her lips pursed and blowing out a tight stream, just like Dr. Weaver taught her. “Feel the tension, then let it go.” This was the letting-it-go part, the “it” being the weight of the world that constantly bore down on my mother: Marybeth Parker, saint.
“We’re gonna be late,” I said, snapping my gum. She hated it when I snapped my gum.
She shook her head slowly.
“I know, it’s just—“ a self-conscious intake of breath, just to make it clear that she wasn’t ready to move, but that she would do it, heroically, for me. “That was a bad one.”
They all are, I immediately wished I had the gall to say out loud. But I didn’t say it. Either way, she started to trundle down the soup aisle, so I let it go. Right after a spell my mother walks with stiff legs and arms outstretched, like a zombie in tiger-print yoga pants.
She buys all of her yoga pants at Ross, which she calls “Ross-Dress-For-Less,” all in one breath like that. I’ve tried to tell her that it’s just a slogan, and that it’s like saying “McDonald’s-I’m-Lovin’-It” whenever you refer to the restaurant. She always says, “But it’s on the sign!” which is true, though not strictly relevant. But usually by that point I’m too bored to continue the conversation.
Since she buys her own yoga pants at Ross-Dress-for-Less, that means all of my clothes also come from Ross-Dress-for-Less. Recently she’s taken to buying identical pairs of yoga pants for both of us, I guess with some vague idea that we could wear them and match, like trailer park mormons on picture day. That never happens, though. I make sure of that. I have a checklist in the back of this very journal where I keep a list of each pair of yoga pants she (we) owns. Once I check off a pattern, I know it’s safe for me to wear until laundry day.
One might ask, ‘Why not buy your own clothes, Gabby?’ To which I would say, first, ‘I'm thirteen, do I look like I have a job?’ and second, ‘Because every cent I scrape together and don’t spend on clothes is another cent closer to a security deposit on my own apartment, and I’ll endure a childhood of tiger-print yoga pants for a lifetime of freedom.’
My mother reached out to steady herself again, this time with both hands. A hot guy in hipster glasses tried to pass her with his cart but her flabby wingspan took up the majority of the aisle.
“Oooooh, Gabby,” she said, like she was having a righteous BM right there in the middle of the store. The hot guy in hipster glasses practically burned rubber turning his cart around, and made off back down the aisle.
“Mom, what the hell.” I cross my arms over my chest as tight as possible, as if I could squeeze myself into oblivion. The idea relaxes me, sometimes: nonexistence.
“I’m sorry sweetie, it’s really bad today.” She continued to teeter with arms outstretched, like a seasick Rose on the bow of the Titanic.
The vertigo started about a year ago. Mom originally took dad to see Dr. Weaver about their “marital problems.” Dad thought the guy was a crank and stopped going after two weeks, but mom thought he was basically Jesus with a prescription pad. He gave her some drugs for her “chronic anxiety condition,” (as she now calls it), one of the side effects of which is debilitating vertigo.
I’m not convinced that she didn’t start out faking the vertigo just to get dad’s attention, but at this point I think she’s even convinced herself it’s real. Either way, dad still doesn’t give a shit. Just a few minutes earlier, during mom’s spell by the apple cart, he mumbled something about “going to look at bread” and then disappeared down the cleaning supplies aisle. By the time we reached the soup, he was probably already waiting in the car. And it was his ADHD nephew’s birthday party we were buying cheese and crackers for in the first place.
After about 30 seconds she started moving again, It was like watching a giant newborn take it’s first steps.
“Did your dad say he was getting the cheese?”
“Well where’s the cheese?”
“We passed it.”
I pointed vaguely over the wall of soup toward the other side of the store. We had walked past the cheese right after we walked in, but she had been laying into dad about how he always parks right next to bushes when she’s sitting in the passenger seat, and how she always has to climb out straight into the bush. This time was particularly funny, too; she tripped on the curb when she tried to contort her way out of the front seat of our Honda Civic and went sprawling into the low hedge near the cart return. She was still picking leaves from her hair when we walked by the cheese. I didn’t feel like interrupting to let her know.
Besides, I was in no rush to get to the birthday party. Last time the kid (my cousin Bridger) stood on the couch and screamed in my face for a full minute when we got there, which everyone thought was thoroughly charming. He’s one of those kids who you think was born with chocolate ice cream on his face, and that will probably end up building bombs out of fertilizer and tiki-torches in his parents garage.
A few spells later, we made it back to the artisan cheese section. My mother looked bewildered at the stacks of rough-cut wedges.
“How do we know what to get?” she said.
“I don’t know, just pick something.”
She hiked up her yoga pants and bent down, picking up a wedge of parmesan and squinting at the label.
“It’s so expensive,” she said, and dropped it back to the top of the pile.
“Let’s just get the deli slices again, like last time.”
“But I wanted to get something fancy,” she said, twirling her hair between her fingers.
“Mom, Bridger is 8 years old and he still shits the bed. I don’t think he’ll know the difference between colby jack and asiago.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right…” she said, still staring longingly into the pile of exoticcheeses.
We left the store 20 minutes later with a tray of deli slices and a razor-thin wedge of smoked gouda. Dad was already asleep in the driver’s seat.
Photo by Julien