September 22, 2021KR OnlineFiction

Other Mothers

We were there in a state of need, which is precisely when you are not supposed to enter a mall. It’s like what they say about grocery shopping while hungry, only worse, because to enter a mall is to experience a kind of spiritual death. I say this as someone who appreciates the convenience of the mall, someone who still supports their local mall, someone who does not shop online like the youth of today who have forsaken the mall. Apparently they don’t need to congregate in a food court to say terrible things to one another. They have figured out a way to say terrible things wherever they are.

My problem was that I made the mistake of telling Mary I didn’t like malls. She rolled her eyes, clearly disgusted, and said, Who doesn’t like malls. So we were in a fight now.

Maybe there are two types of people, I explained to Mary. Those who like malls and those who don’t. Mary told me that I was too beholden to binary thinking, which horrified me. I was always in a state of being horrified by my own lurking, indeterminate conservatism, which reared its head when I least expected it. I don’t mean it! I always wanted to say. I live in this world, and oh, it’s made me so bad, even when I try otherwise. But Mary never bought it.

Mary is not my mother. But if there’s a near thirty-year age difference and you’re fighting in a mall, then the two of you become mother and daughter. That’s just the rule. I saw people looking over at us, smiling a knowing smile, as we bickered.  It made me so mad. I wanted to lean over and shout at them. But I didn’t want to embarrass Mary. She doesn’t watch reality television, so she’s very sensitive to a certain brand of public-facing conflict.

Mary, I told her. Don’t even for one second pretend that you don’t also think this mall is charmless. That’s probably why you brought us here—just to prove some point about it.

I have a gift card, she admitted.

Well, you didn’t tell me about the gift card, I said.

Mary had to buy a gift for her granddaughter, whose birthday party was on Saturday. I told her I didn’t want to go with her. I knew she invited me to be nice, but that felt bad. Mary was, for all intents and purposes, my best friend. We met when we worked together briefly in the same office job. You can imagine this job as generically as you want, and I promise you it will be something close to the truth of what we experienced. Our days were so boring without each other. We really made each other laugh. Mary was so funny. I liked to think I was funny too.

The two of us started eating lunch together because we were the only ones who brought food from home. I brought frozen burritos. I microwaved them aggressively—my plate was always mostly exploded beans. I liked that they had a dense chewiness you couldn’t find in other food groups, that and the heft of a stapler. Mary brought hard-boiled eggs and thermoses of tea. It was a meal straight out of a children’s book I had once read about a badger who was a very picky eater. She even had little thimbles of salt and pepper. Mary had read the book about the picky-eater badger to her daughter and fessed up that it had largely inspired how she ate her meals. She was very impressed that I was able to intuit this by just looking at her lunch. I’m very intuitive, I told her.

I could intuit by spending time with Mary that she was an interesting person and most likely not a very attentive mother. That wasn’t a thing specific to all interesting women, of course. That was specific to Mary. Mary thought the needs of other people were often unreasonable. She lived in the world with a very determined sense of practicality. She hated emotional fussiness. I thought children were comprised mostly of emotional fussiness. So it didn’t surprise me when she told me that her daughter thought she had been distant to her as a child, not as nurturing, so to speak, as she would have wanted her to be.

What I didn’t say was: my mother was very nurturing. She gave me a lot of attention, which, as it turned out, was just the right amount.

Mary was younger than my mother, but she was the same age as my mother when my mother died. I told that to Mary on our fourth lunch together, and Mary squinted at me and asked: And how is that supposed to make me feel? Mary, I told her, I just told you my mom died! You’re supposed to comfort me! Oh right, said Mary. She took my hand in hers and sang in a deep operatic baritone: So Sorry for Your Loss! We were at a little picnic table outside of our office. A woman in a button-down, eating something orange out of a compostable bowl, turned her head at the sound of the impromptu aria.  I’m allowed to do that, said Mary, because my mom is dead, too, and when she died, I hadn’t seen her for a very, very long time.

I had other friends than Mary—less unlikely friends, friends young like me, a steady collective of people I had amassed since college who were either like-minded or simply good company. I thought it was nice to have different kinds of friends. Different kinds of conversation. With my friends my own age, we talked a lot about the next ten years. Where did we picture ourselves in the next ten years? We imagined a whole lot of life would be crammed into those ten years, so much life it was nearly incomprehensible. How did we manage to stay upright, to put one foot in front of another, knowing that maybe it would result in our colliding into a person who would never leave us (unless they wanted to, or died), grow a baby inside us (unless they didn’t want to, or died), make a home with us (unless that was out of the question, or they died), make money with us, more money (unless it wasn’t more—unless we failed to find more money, and then they got sick and died). How could we be really present with one another with all of that in mind? We were like swimmers in parallel lanes, sometimes meeting each other’s glances when our faces surfaced, gasping for breath. But mostly we were very self-involved. Mary had already lived so much life. Now, she had done the near impossible—she had gotten in the habit of enjoying it.

One time Mary and I had gone out to eat spaghetti and were crossing the street to get back to our cars. There was this kid who was on his skateboard who kept falling off it trying to land a difficult trick. He was getting so mad. Fuck! he shouted. Fuck! Fuck! And then, inexplicably, he yelled very loud into the night: I want to fingerbang someone! Mary cracked up. She put both her hands on her knees. That kid, she told me. Is hilarious.

Maybe people thought we made an odd pair, but I thought it was odd that they thought that. It was strange to think that I was distinct in that I could actually see Mary. Lots of people walked past her as if she weren’t there. She was just this old Chinese lady. One time I asked her if it bothered her.

No, she said. I’m used to it.

Every now and then Mary let me hang out with her and her other friends. They were all her age. They went for walks in the park together. They all liked to go to this one restaurant that had really good lion’s head. Oh, her friends would say knowingly, Yes! We’ve heard so much about you. You’re her young friend.

That’s right, I would say gamely. I’m her white friend.

It was a joke Mary and I had with one another.

At the mall I told her that if you bought a gift with a gift card it kind of meant that it didn’t count. I was just kidding. What do you know about manners? she asked me. I suggested we see a movie. That way we would never have to leave. We were both very cold from the air- conditioning. There were little goose bumps all over Mary’s skin. The soap store to our right was giving off the overpowering scent of GoGurt. Unconsciously we both tilted our faces up to the skylight, hungry for the sun.

Mary asked me if there was a toy store in the mall, and I told her that toy stores didn’t exist anymore. You should just get her an iPad, I said. It was cruel of me to say that because I knew Mary didn’t have the money for that. Mary’s husband, Pete, was sick and even though she had insurance she paid all these crazy out-of-pocket expenses that didn’t make any sense to either one of us. Mary watched a lot of videos of parents crying because they couldn’t afford their child’s insulin and posted them to Facebook. This country makes me sick sometimes, she wrote. I thought—for just one dangerous, flickering moment—that it sounded ungrateful. Sometimes I forgot that Mary wasn’t born here. But then every now and then, I was reminded. For whatever reason, I reminded myself.

It makes sense that toy stores don’t exist anymore, I told Mary, the two of us walking between rows of kiosks featuring different smartphone accessories. Because the whole concept of them is something a kid would make up. Something that isn’t real, or in the world of adults. Doesn’t it sound strange to you, if you think about it? A whole store just full of random toys.

Let’s get her a little outfit then, Mary said. Something that her mother will like. It was implied in her saying this that it wouldn’t be to Mary’s personal taste. Mary thought kids were cute when they dressed like they were part of a Dust Bowl reenactment. Mary’s daughter used to put this little headband with a bow on her baby, and Mary always told me she thought it was the stupidest thing in the world. That baby has no hair, said Mary.

We walked around and got a pretzel that tasted deliciously like both buttered popcorn and the hot insides of a car seat. I felt like she brought me here because she knew I wouldn’t like it. That excited me. I loved fighting with her. It made me feel closer to her. Like real intimacy. She didn’t put up with my rudeness, but she wasn’t afraid of it either. That’s what I loved about Mary. Her fearlessness. She was not afraid of her daughter not liking her. I wanted that kind of freedom—to know that kind of love. Plus, Mary one-upped me on the grief scale. She had no mother anymore, and no mother country either.

I remember the first time Mary’s daughter, June, met me. She was so confused. She was dropping off her kid to stay with Mary for the afternoon. Mary was very obsessed with her granddaughter. She cooed in her face. I never thought Mary was capable of cooing at anything. She paid her granddaughter so much attention, which I think Mary’s daughter found painful. Mary’s daughter looked at me bemusedly and Mary said, Oh this is my friend from work. Mary’s daughter said, Is she your intern? That cracked both Mary and me up. In what world, said Mary, do you think I have an intern. This is my friend. We drink a lot of wine after work sometimes. Mary’s daughter looked at both of our faces and grew eager, like someone who wanted to be in on the joke. But how old are you? she asked me. I’m twenty-seven, I said. When you were twenty-seven, she told Mary, I was already five years old. Yep, said Mary, and look where that got me. No interns.

After Mary’s daughter left, Mary looked at me and said, Don’t mind her, she’s always criticizing me. Did you push her really hard, I said, when she was a kid? Like did you push her to excel at science and stuff? Mary looked at me and said, You better be joking, and I lied and said of course I was.

I just didn’t have a great track record with Mary’s daughter. I told myself it was because she was obviously jealous of me. She couldn’t handle the fact that Mary and I were as thick as thieves. I thought June was a little humorless, whereas I really got a kick out of Mary’s wickedness and figured that’s how she felt about mine. This one time Mary and I were making fun of one of our coworkers, this guy named Geoff Chen, when June was around. Geoff was some vague, median age between Mary and me. He talked to Mary as if she were a doddering old fool, and me an insouciant teen, fresh from the piercing parlor with a new belly-button ring he had explicitly forbidden me to get.

Why does he always have to pretend to be my daddy, I said to Mary. He’s sick like that.

He is, Mary said, nodding solemnly. I feel like if we saw his Internet searches, we’d never be able to meet his eyes again.

It’s always the quiet ones, I said to Mary. He’s a quiet one. That’s what I like about you, Mary. You’re not one of the quiet ones. You’re one of the loud ones. June crossed her arms and frowned. She moved closer to her mother, and the two of them shared an unknowable look. She left soon after that.

What’s her problem, I said. She’s always got a stick up her butt. But Mary didn’t say anything. She waved me home with a brush of her hand, telling me she was busy, telling me firmly it was time for me to go.

At the mall, Mary and I went into a Gymboree, but we couldn’t tell which clothes were for sleeping and which ones were for the waking hours, and besides Mary said that the music they were playing made her want to kill herself. Mary, I told her, behave yourself. That’s a lot for a Gymboree. We got her granddaughter a blue shirt that said SUPERSTAR in sparkly letters. It shed glitter all over us. There were flecks of gold conspicuously embedded in Mary’s eyebrows. It made it hard to take her seriously. I don’t want to be one of those people, Mary said, but my granddaughter does have a preternatural intelligence.

I’m sure she does, I said to Mary.

Why don’t you come with me, she said, to the party. Pete’s not feeling well enough to make an appearance. It makes me so low to think of him not coming.

Sorry Mary, I told her, I can’t.

You won’t, she said.

That’s right, I told her. I won’t.

There have been moments in the past when I am with Mary and her granddaughter, watching the two of them gazing up at a tree laden with fruit or an old dog with very little teeth, and I feel blind with a misty-eyed rage. I want to shout, You’re going to die one day, Mary, as if that will make me feel better. I want to tell her not to leave me, never to leave me.

When we left the mall, we weren’t fighting anymore. We were making fun of her daughter who had told us recently that she had bought a ludicrously expensive sweater that said FEMINIST on it. She was looking for Mary’s approval, but this was the wrong way to do it.  There was a car in the parking lot with a bumper sticker on it that said I LOVE AGING AND DYING.

Fucking liars, Mary said. But I took a picture of it and saved it on my phone so that when she was gone—when she had left me—we could remember what we had both left behind.