Tribal Loyalty by Taara Khalilnaji
by Taara Khalilnaji
“Evenings have always been hard for my mother. When I was growing up, the magnitude of her anxiety felt directly correlated to the location of the sun in the sky. It follows, then, that evenings are hard for me too. When daylight fades, dread comes into view.”
by Taara Khalilnaji
The day after David Bowie’s death, Bay Area Rapid Transit police found a foot in the subway rails. I listen to the news report on the public radio station as I drive a borrowed car over the Bay Bridge. It is a Sunday. I only visit my mother on Sundays. As I cruised through traffic, I wondered if by the time transit personnel spotted the protrusion of toes, the foot was still flesh-colored or if it had taken on the bluish-gray hue of rot.
Visiting my mother on Sundays legitimizes a short visit. She cannot coax me into spending the night because I absolutely must go to work on Monday. I think back to our last visit, struggling to remember details beyond the smells, the lighting, the tension.
When I was sixteen years old, our family therapist told me that he believes my mother has schizophrenia. Today, a dozen years later, she lives alone, unmedicated. She has her high years and her low years. I have my high years and low years too, but not because I’m unmedicated; I treat my complex post-traumatic stress disorder. We all have good times and bad times. After all, people can’t feel everything there is to feel all at once. Sometimes, we start to feel one thing just as we’re finishing up feeling something else. Occasionally, we might boycott feelings altogether. It’s in those moments and in between them when we’re most unwell.
It’s January. We have a good year behind us. But what has kept me going back to her is fading again. The further away from the city I drive, the temptation to turn around fills my hands. I roll down the window and let the traffic-scented air slap my face.
My first stop in Sacramento is Whole Foods. My uncle, who does my mother’s grocery shopping with her disability income, buys her food from the Dollar Store. I do not argue with my uncle about the quality of my mother’s nutrition: when I was in college, she often had no food, and when she did, she refused to eat. The image of a rotted foot reminds me of the day I found her in the corner of her home, looking starved and smelling rancid – as if the skin on her bones was decomposing.
Today, I know that she will eat. I buy fresh fruits and vegetables, a whole cooked chicken, and I pack a to-go box of rice from the hot foods section. I check out and go to the nearest liquor store where I buy two boxes of cigarettes. I pass my uncle’s house on my way to my mother’s.
As I pull into her driveway, I can see an open slit in her closed blinds. Four fingers peek out, her eyes between them. She’s been waiting for me, watching for me. I wave and park in front of the empty garage. She opens her front door, calling my name with a cigarette between her lips.
I bring in the groceries and exhale, preparing to inhale her home’s stench for the next six hours. As I inspect the sparse contents of her refrigerator, she politely proclaims that I shouldn’t have brought her food.
“When was the last time you brushed your teeth?” I ask.
She considers the question, smiling mischievously like a child. I tell her to go brush her teeth. While she’s in the bathroom, I take myself quickly through the small house, examining the state of each room. When she’s finished, we eat chicken and rice at the kitchen table. I look at her eyes and see the familiar fog in them. As I watch her pick at the chicken, eating it suspiciously, I know for certain that I won’t be back here again for a while.
When we’ve finished with lunch, I wash the dishes and begin cleaning her home. I scrape what looks like melted plastic off the tile floor, take out her garbage, and wipe the dust from various surfaces. My mother steps in and out of the house as she smokes and asks me questions I attempt to dismiss.
“I know they’re watching me. Poor souls. They can’t help themselves. If Mother Earth were your neighbor, you’d be curious about her too, wouldn’t you?”
I empty the vacuum.
“Your daee is stealing my money. Did you stop by his house? Does he know you’re here?”
I scrub her toilet and I scrub her shower. In the living room, where she sleeps, I strip her mattress of its sheets.
“Did you hear about David Bowie? Very sad.”
I ask her when she last changed her clothes. I make her take a shower. Meanwhile, I go around to the back of the house and light a joint. The gummies I ate after leaving Whole Foods have done nothing to soothe me.
Back in the living room, my mother and I sit in front of the laptop I’ve brought with me. I’ve set up a personal hotspot and connected to Wi-Fi. This is the part of the visit when I let time pass as she immerses herself in access to the Internet. I search for musicians or preachers, typing out names she’s heard on the radio, that she’s scribbled on a scrap of paper. Sometimes she’ll have me play a song on repeat as she cries and looks up at the ceiling. Sometimes she’ll make me look for a Hafez poem or a Bible story. Usually after a few hours, she gets fatigued. She begins to curse about something or someone. She’ll get up to smoke while cussing out Hafez or crying for Jesus. Today is no different. Her face twists and spits as she shouts profanities about those spying neighbors.
Evenings have always been hard for my mother. When I was growing up, the magnitude of her anxiety felt directly correlated to the location of the sun in the sky. It follows, then, that evenings are hard for me too. When daylight fades, dread comes into view. At home in the city, it’s in the evenings when I remember the plain fact that I’m made of her. I’ll be watching television and I’ll hear myself laugh and realize I’m hearing the cadence of her laugh, the same upwards movement of it. I’ll be sitting in bed wrapped in a blanket watching smoke twirl from the joint between my fingers and I’ll imagine my mother doing the same with her cigarettes. In bed alone, I think about her lying on that mattress in the middle of the living room. I think of her unrelenting loneliness and how perhaps we’ll always have that in common. If tribal loyalty isn’t what keeps me coming back to visit her, then it’s what keeps her coming back to me – in my thoughts, my dreams, my mannerisms.
I interrupt my mother’s monologue to suggest leftovers. She’s distracted, watching the house across the street. I set the table and implore her to sit. Instead, she lights another cigarette over the stove and tells me about how she feels tethered, or chased. “When I move,” she explains carefully, “I pull the universe and everything in it with me.” I imagine swirls of stardust fluttering after her as she steps outside to smoke.
“Please,” I beg, forgetting to lie about what it’s like to be with her. “It’s been a long day.”
I’m in Sacramento again two months later, taking my mother to the social security office to renew the application for her disability income. The sight of her should have been enough to guarantee the modest monthly stipend. She sits across from the teller at the office, muttering under her breath “I’m not crazy,” snorting out a laugh; she does this as if on loop, as if performing for the woman behind the glass partition. I do the talking and I take my mother home after the teller has satisfactorily shuffled through all the documents in my folder labeled Maman.
On my drive back to the city this time, I recall what my mother said at the end of the last visit about feeling tethered, feeling like that which makes up the universe follows her, chases her. I wonder if those bits of the world that swirl around her attach themselves to me. Particles that leave a trail between us.
I decide to leave California. I move to Brooklyn, hoping whatever chains me to her breaks. I attempt to live immersed in something other than the entropy between us. I get lost in freshness. In the people, the art, the scenes, the noise. She’s still there: in my thoughts and my dreams and my chest, but what was once a palpable tension fades.
Fifteen months after settling into BedStuy, the pandemic is in New York City. I leave for Seattle this time. I adopt a dog. I get engaged. Nearly five years pass before I see my mother again, our longest stint of no-contact of all the long stints of no-contact.
Again I’m driving a borrowed car to her house. She happens to be outside as I pull up. My hands are shaking. A few minutes into our interaction, it occurs to me that she does not know who I am.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Taara Khalilnaji moved from Brooklyn to Seattle in August 2020 as a result of the global pandemic. There, she walks her dog, goes to therapy, writes, and reflects on her time working in the technology industry. Her flash pieces and prose have appeared in various journals since 2013. Learn more at taarawrites.com. Follow her on Twitter @taaracries.
Author photo by Brandyn Carlson. FEATURED IMAGE courtesy of the author.