The first time it happened, I trapped my mother in a cup of coffee. It wasn't exactly what I had in mind, but I can't say I was disappointed, not at first.
I had brewed a pot of coffee from my sacred stash of Italian roast, a 40th birthday present from my big brother stationed overseas, and I sat down to grade papers with Kafka the Cat on my lap. My roommate was spending a romantic weekend at the Dells, hoping to finally get engaged to her boyfriend of 15 years. I had been looking forward to the solitude when the buzzer rang and my mother's voice came through the intercom.
"It's me, Sabrina," she said. "Your mother. I'm sorry to bother you, but I have to use the toilet. Damned urinary incontinence. Getting old can really cramp your style. The nurse says I have to start practicing my Kegels again, but I told her it's not as much fun if there's no man around to reward all that hard work and squeezing."
I buzzed her in before my neighbors got an earful of my mother's sex life.
As soon as she came in, she kissed my cheek and went straight into the bathroom, talking to me through the closed door. I was thankful she closed it this time. My mother had a bad habit of leaving it open. She claimed it was from years of having to watch us kids like hawks.
While washing her hands, my mother went on and on about how she would soon need hip replacement surgery, "It's too bad your brothers and sisters have moved out of state and away from their loving mother who raised them as a single mom, because who will take care of me during recovery since your father walked out on us leaving me to put aside my dreams of being a hand model to waste away in the department store folding underwear all day—"
Without stopping her rant about childhood dreams and disappointments, Mother walked over and sat down across from me at the little table I had salvaged a few years ago when my favorite diner on Lincoln Avenue closed.
"—and each one of you sucked more and more of the life and beauty right out from me—"
My mother was the kind of woman who wore lipstick to the dentist and glasses on a rollercoaster. I watched her maraschino cherry-red lips moving, then focused on a spider crawling on the sill behind her. I tried to ignore the words, but they just kept on coming.
"—just came here from the doctor who said that I was an excellent candidate for hip replacement and should be up and around in no time, but I would still need someone to help—"
"I already have a roommate," I said, looking up at her.
"And you've been enjoying her cooking, have you?" She said with a nod toward my midsection.
"I cook for myself, and I wear a size six," I turned my attention back to my papers.
"Size sixes were much smaller in my day," she said, not missing a beat.
"Right," I said, not looking up.
"Did I tell you that I was a size zero when I married your father?" she asked, smoothing her jet-black hair. She was now a curvy size eight.
"Yes, many times." I said.
"I'm just saying that when I cooked for you, you were a size four—"
"I was eighteen," I interrupted.
"True," she said, "you're no spring chicken, but I'll bet if I started cooking for you again, you'd go down to a size four—"
"What's your excuse?" I asked.
"It's the menopause," my mother retorted, "Have as many babies as I have while working like a dog, and then you can judge."
"Gah!" I said throwing up my hands. "What do you want, Ma? Do you want me to ask you to move in with me so that I can take care of you after your surgery? Is that what this is all about?"
"Bee," she said softly, using my childhood nickname, "there's no one else."
"I wonder why?" I asked, then felt bad the minute the words left my lips.
"Never mind," my mother said standing up and smoothing her brown slacks. "I will find another way."
She bent to scratch Kafka under the neck, then walked over to the kitchen sink and stared out the window at my neighbor's fire escape. Tiny in stature, my mother always filled the room with her high heels, tailored suits, and coifed hair. When I was a child at St. Rudolph's in a sea of Polish and Irish, my mother, siblings, and I stood out for a hundred different reasons. I was not the only latchkey kid in class, but I was the only one whose mother packed sinigang and rice in a Tupperware container for lunch and sealed the brown paper bag with lipstick kisses.
I knew my mother was waiting for the grand gesture, for me to beg her to stay. It's what she did, and how I always responded. After 41 years, her guilt still worked. It didn't seem fair. I wished I had that kind of power.
"Whatever you need, Ma," I said. "I'll help you."
I looked down into my coffee mug, and my mother was there. In my mug. I looked back to the sink, but my mother had vanished. I looked back to my mug. She was in my coffee mug. Her face floated on the surface of the brown liquid. I could only see her face and upper torso, but she waved at me. She looked cheerful for a woman trapped in a coffee mug.
"What are you doing in there?" I asked.
"I don't exactly know, but it's nice. Warm like a hot tub," she said.
I couldn't have my mother in my coffee mug. "Come out right this second," I demanded.
"No, I don't think so," my mother said pursing her lips. "I'm not sure how I got here, but it's not bad. My hips don't ache; I can do my Kegels. Plus it smells divine."
It was a damned good cup of coffee, and she ruined it like she ruined so many beautiful things. Kafka jumped up on my lap and looked toward the mug.
"Eventually the coffee is going to get nasty," I said.
"That is a good point," she said.
We sat in silence for several minutes, and I had to keep reminding myself not to take a sip out of habit. For me, thinking and drinking coffee went hand-in-hand. I got up and poured myself another fresh cup. We sat in silence as I drank my coffee. I avoided my mother's gaze, staring beyond it all at the window.
"It seems I can't actually drink any of it," my mother finally said. "That's a pity. You do make a nice cup of coffee, and this smells like the coffee your brother sends."
"It is," I said and pushed the cup away so that I wouldn't accidentally drink my mother.
That night, I carried the mug into my room and closed the door so that Kafka wouldn't accidentally knock it over and spill my mother onto the linoleum. I wondered if my mother could sleep and if she was able to see beyond the cup. I fell asleep thinking about what to tell my brothers and sister when Thanksgiving rolled around and she wasn't there to make her infamous chicken relleno and flan for dessert.
I half expected it all to be a dream when I woke up to the sound of Kafka scratching on the door, but there she was, my mother in my coffee mug, a slight film forming from the sweetened condensed milk.
"Good morning, sunshine," she said with a smile.
"Really, Ma?" I asked, "Is it really a good morning?"
"It really is," she said, but her image seemed to fade a little. When she smiled I got goose bumps.
"Well, you can't stay there. The coffee is going to get moldy," I said, although I'm not sure what I expected her to do. I wasn't sure if she had done this, or I had somehow trapped her there. Who do you call when your mother is trapped in a coffee mug?
I heard a tapping at the window and pulled up the shades to see my mother reflected in the glass of the floor-to-ceiling window that made up one wall of my room.
"That's much better," she said stretching. I went back to the coffee mug and sure enough, she was gone from the coffee.
"I'm going to put this in the sink. Stay here," I said, to test her, to see if she could follow me around the apartment, moving from window-to-window.
"Where else would I go?" she asked.
I opened the door and went to the kitchen to put the mug in the sink. I checked the windows along the way, but they remained empty, revealing only the maple and linden-lined street two stories below.
When I got back to my room, Kafka was sitting in front of the window staring at the pellucid reflection of my mother in the glass. He meowed and ran out the door.
"I like this," she said. "You have a lovely view of the park. I never noticed it before."
"What are we going to tell everyone?" I asked her.
"Well, tell them I went on a trip," she said. "That will buy me some time."
So I did. I sent my brothers and sisters an email explaining that mom had taken a trip across the country with a friend. No one seemed surprised; she was prone to impulsive adventures.
My mother stayed in the bedroom window for the longest stretch of time, a translucent image that I could best see when the morning sun streamed through. She chattered at me so much that I tried to keep the blinds drawn for some peace. That made her angry, and she made such a racket that I finally gave in and opened the blinds.
"How can you shut out your Mother?" she asked.
I surrendered my room and retreated to the living room to sleep on the couch with Kafka. I told my roommate that it was because the upstairs neighbors had taken to pounding the floor at night, but my roommate complained that it cramped her dating style since she had dumped the boyfriend after he failed to propose.
After two weeks, I couldn't bear the couch any longer and returned to the bed, but Kafka refused to sleep in my room. I think he was unnerved by my mother watching him all night. I certainly couldn't get used to the idea of her watching me while I slept.
To be fair, she wasn't always annoying. Sometimes my mother and I would have bedtime chats before I went to sleep. I would prop myself up with the eight pillows I kept on my bed, and she would stand in the window.
"Don't you get tired of standing all day and night?" I once asked her.
"I really don't," she said. "There doesn't seem to be any gravity over here." She demonstrated by flipping upside down and "standing" on her head.
"Don't do that," I said. "I can't talk to you when you're upside-down."
"You're always so serious," said, rotating sideways and staying that way. "This dexterity could be fun if I had a little company."
"Ma!" I said.
"What?" She teased, "You're the only one who can have some fun? I'm a sexual creature too, and from what I hear behind these blinds, I'm a little more free and creative than my daughter."
"I knew I had an audience," I said, turning away from her so that she wouldn't see me blush. "Having your mother in the room can put a damper on your sexual spontaneity!"
My mother was quiet, and I turned around to see her rotating right side up again.
"Sorry, Bee," she said. "I'm just teasing . . . although since you're a reader, I could recommend a few books—"
I stormed out of the room and slept on the couch that night, but I couldn't stay angry with her. What choice did she have? Where could she go?
When I thought about it, her time in my bedroom windows was the closest we had ever been. In the mornings, she would wake me up the same way she used to when I was a kid, singing, "Here Comes the Sun." She never let me oversleep, and I missed the morning routine when she eventually switched surfaces. Luckily the roommate wasn't home when we had a big fight about my love life. With my mother in the window, I had essentially stopped dating. She noticed.
"Don't be so Puritanical!" she shouted at me. "You have itches that need scratching. You need to get out there and meet people, bring them home for a little slap and tickle."
"This conversation is wrong on so many levels," I tried to remain calm.
"I'm only looking out for your best interests," she said, pacing back and forth.
"Really?" I asked. "Then why are you still here?"
She looked stricken, threw up her hands, and pulled off her head.
I screamed, and the next thing I knew she was gone from my window. I ran around the house looking for her until I found her on the toaster. I brought it into my room to avoid having to explain to my roommate. I later told her it was broken and at a repair shop.
"What was that for?" I shouted to the smaller, more manageable image of my mother in the silver toaster.
"Because I can, and because you weren't listening to me," she said. "While you've been sleeping, I've discovered all kinds of interesting things that I can do." She grinned mischievously at me. "Want to see?"
"No!" I shouted, "I most definitely do not," and I went back to the kitchen to get the orange and yellow toaster cozy my youngest sister had knitted for me.
"Don't you dare," my mother threatened, "I look terrible in yellow."
I put the cozy on, and she cackled. It wasn't just reflective surfaces though. After a few days in the toaster she slipped into a book I was reading. I thought I had lost her when suddenly strange handwritten words started creeping into the story:
The shadow of the man Bee stretched across the sky. It's me, your Mother. When the gunman walked out onto the street, everyone hid. Why are you reading this dribble?
"Is nothing sacred?" I shouted and slammed it down on the table.
The room was strangely quiet and I found it unnerving. I picked up the book and started reading to find her again:
Except for the child This is different. I can still hear you, but I can't see you. who ran out to bring him his 45. I don't like this, Bee. The gunman bent to take the weapon and—
She didn't have any physical form that I could detect, just the chatter in between the words. She was right; it wasn't even a good book. Unlike Woody Allen's Kugelmass, my mother was not a participant in the plot. That would have been more tolerable, but she was just awash in words. She could smell and hear, but she couldn't see. It was harder to tell her tone, but she seemed depressed and sometimes lost:
The soldiers chased him up into the stormy mountains. Who does that? Go into stormy mountains. Bet your father would. Never had any sense. Ran off to Los Angeles with a pretty young model. Even with his hand cuffed behind him, But he came back, yes he did. He was able to pull out the secret pistol he hid under the saddle with his teeth. That's just nonsense. Teeth. I miss teeth. teeth teeth teeth. The things I could do with teeth. You have pretty teeth.
Sometimes I wondered if she was really my mother at all. I became obsessed with the idea that she was not my mother, that she had tricked me somehow. I didn't open the book because I was afraid of what I might read, and yet I carried it with me everywhere because I was afraid to leave her alone. What could she be doing in there all alone? What else had she discovered while I was sleeping? I had to check in at least once a day, just to see what she had to say. I suspected that she was somehow changing the words in the book. It seemed too badly written to have been published that way:
After Rosita dressed his wounds, she told him about the aliens that had been posing as outlaws. Bee, I'd like to sit in the sun today. It's so dark here. The gunman took her tiny hands in his. If this is death, I'm not sure I like it. But I can't go back. You can never go back. I miss my voice. So disconnected.
I wondered why I had never thought to check her apartment. If this was not my mother, there would be a clue there. Maybe I could find out why this happened in the first place. I picked up my purse and applied some powder to my nose just before walking out of the house. There she was, in the compact mirror.
"Your nose always gets shiny," she said. "You have your father's nose."
I closed the compact. Then I opened it again. She was still there.
"This is much better, Bee," she said, but she looked odd, as if all the pieces hadn't come back quite in the right way. Her colors were faded, and her ears seemed slightly larger than they should be. One eye was green and the other was blue. My mother's eyes were actually brown, like my own.
"Are you ok?" I asked, and peered into the tiny mirror.
She patted her hair and licked her red lips. "I feel mahvelous," she said in a bad Billy Crystal voice from the Saturday Night Live of my youth. "Where are we going?"
"Just an errand," I said and closed the compact. I didn't want her to get trapped in a storefront window or random puddle on the street. I put the compact back in my purse and tossed the book on my desk in relief. Kafka jumped up and sat on the book.
"See you soon," I said and patted Kafka on the head. He purred.
I took the Clark Street bus to my mother's apartment, picked up her mail at the building manager's office, and let myself in with her spare key. I was my mother's backup, one of the perks of living in the same city. Her apartment was neat and clean. It smelled fresh, and I was relieved. A part of me was afraid that I would find her rotting corpse splayed on the kitchen floor, but there was no body, no sign that anyone had been there in weeks.
I walked around the kitchen, looking at scraps of paper on the counter and the Zen wall calendar on the fridge, anything that might offer a clue as to why my mother was now trapped in my mirror. I couldn't find anything.
Until I went to her bedroom. Written on her mirror in red lipstick: I love you. I'm so glad you came here. Come back. I forgive you for that LA tramp. Take me with you.
To whom was my mother writing? I suspected that it was my father, but why on the mirror? I pulled the compact out and aimed it at the mirror.
"What's this all about?" I asked her.
"I don't know what you're talking about," my mother answered and turned around so that all I could see what the back of her head.
"Who were you writing to?" I asked.
"Who do you think?" she answered. "Why are you snooping around my apartment? It's none of your business! Leave me alone."
I knew she was getting upset because her head was starting to float above her neck in the mirror. Her hair was also turning white.
"Leave you alone?" I said. "You're the one who came to me."
"Only because you were the closest," she said, then she cackled.
"What happened?" I asked again.
"He came here," she answered, and her head swiveled around in the mirror. It actually rotated around three times before it stopped to face me. "Your father appeared in my bedroom mirror on my birthday."
"Why would he do that? After thirty-five years, why?" I asked.
"I don't know. I wondered about that. I suppose because I was the closest," she answered.
I don't know why the fact that my father made contact after four decades struck me as harder to swallow than my mother, or father for that matter, being captured in a mirror. I would have argued that she was delusional, except I was the one shouting into a compact.
I panicked and slammed the compact shut. I sat on her bed staring at the lipstick on the mirror, wondering how long he had been there, wondering if they had reconciled, wondering why he didn't come to see me.
I opened the compact, but she was gone. I looked up to the lipstick letters, and there she was in her own mirror, proportions still wonky, expression slightly pained as she looked around her own apartment.
"Please don't leave me here," she said in a voice that sounded too young.
"I can't stay here, Ma," I said. I was afraid to ask the question that kept looping inside my head, so instead I stared at her handwriting. It looked just like mine. In high school I was easily able to forge her signature on my sibling report cards and notes from the teachers.
Take me with you.
The way she was standing, the letters seemed printed across her chest.
She wanted to leave us—to leave me—to be with him?
"What happened to my father?" I finally asked her.
My mother looked like she was fading, and I stood up and walked closer to the mirror, putting my hands out the touch the glass.
"Don't you fade on me!" I shouted. "What happened to him? How long was he here?"
"I tried to touch him through the glass," she sighed, "but never could. Never can get past some obstacles."
Her limbs were separating from her torso in the way they did when she was agitated or sad. Her hair was almost entirely white, and her head floated above her neck. Seeing my mother's message to my father made me realize that I was eventually going to lose her.
"Ma," I cried, suddenly afraid.
"I lost track of time," she confessed. "But it was the best of times, Bee."
I didn't know if she meant our time together, or her time with my father. She looked right at me, our faces separated only by the glass, and she brought her floating palms up to mirror my own. My mother kissed the glass from her side of the mirror, leaving a crimson lipstick mark that could never be wiped away, and then she was gone.
writes: "My publication credits include the Amazon bestselling magic realism novel, The Silence of Trees
, 2010), as well as publication in several literary magazines, including Abyss & Apex
, Doorknobs & Bodypaint
, Fickle Muses
, Danse Macabre
, and The Pedestal Magazine
I also have work forthcoming in Scheherezade's Bequest
and Mythic Delirium
. I'm currently writing my third novel and the script for a graphic novel, STICKS & BONES
, to be published by First Comics
I am the founding editor of the literary magazine, Conclave: A Journal of Character
, and I have been involved with the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame since its inception in 2010.