Monday, September 13, 2021

Some Queens

On a Saturday evening, I am standing on Wall Street, of all places, talking to my mother. My skin is warm from the beach, still glossed with sunscreen despite a ferry ride, and there’s sand in my neon green platform shoes.

At this place no one goes unless they are a tourist or going to work, its cobbles under my feet, I am clutching my forehead as my mother gasps for air and tells me for the fifth or sixth time that she loves me. She is on a strong painkiller these days, and she’s only awake for a few hours at a time. But I knew I needed to get her on the phone to make her promise to me that she’d do her physical therapy.

“It hurts,” she says.

“It’s supposed to,” I say. “I want you to promise me you’ll try. I want you to come to New York and walk around at my book party in 2023.”

“2023,” she says once, and then a few more times.

She can only manage a few words at a time. I am talking to her like she’s five, this woman from whom I am more accustomed to hearing long-winded stories about her trips to Spain in the 1970s, getting whistled at by soldiers; decades of summers in the Catskill Mountains; visits to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade; my grandmother’s many husbands (four? five? I always forget).

My mother’s name is Rani, R-A-N-I, like maharani, like queen. She is a native New Yorker, from Forest Hills, a queen from Queens. Her grandfather used to buy her Little Golden Books like The Shy Little Kitten from the luncheonette near the subway station on Queens Boulevard. She went to Forest Hills High School and graduated at 16. She went to SUNY Cortland but dropped out because, while studying to be a teacher, she realized she didn’t want to be taught how to teach. At 17, she went to Mexico to visit our family there and my grandmother told her not to come home. She stayed and became their ninera and took art classes at a local university and taught conversational English. She lived in Kansas, moved back to New York, then to Florida.

Somewhere in there, when she was 22, a man named Bill wanted to marry her, but she wanted to live a little longer, a little more, before becoming someone’s wife. There’s a picture of her standing in the snow in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, a Spanish Lamb coat on her back, a golden retriever at her side, a flat-brimmed hat shielding her face from the snow. She went there to meet someone else, she told me once. She knew there had to be something else out there for her. I still have the coat, and even though it’s not mine, that memory. Despite all the wear and tear I have unleashed upon the coat in the last few years it remains among the warmest things I own. I have worn it on wintry dates and wondered if it was (capital T, capital M) Too Much but as my mother always said, “Well, Elyssa, if you’re Too Much then you’re Too Much, and that’s who you are.” It was something to own, not something to change.

I get my stubbornness from my mother, a trait for which I have recently apologized in advance. My mother is so stubborn that for nearly 33 years she has refused to tell me the origin story of the Playboy bunny key she wears around her neck, despite numerous requests to do so. My mother is so stubborn she refuses to stop buying cookbooks. My mother is so stubborn that for 28 years she has refused to let me forgo highlighting my hair. My mother is so stubborn she never gave up on her marriage of 35 years. My mother is so stubborn she is refusing to do her physical therapy. But even so, I want to believe my mother is so stubborn she refuses to give up on herself.

If this is true, my mother will be here for my book party in 2023. She will want to go to Bloomingdale’s and Balthazar while she’s here, and have a dirty martini or a Cosmopolitan at Bar Pleiades on East 75th Street. She will fluff her silver hair and smoke Winston cigarettes outside of her hotel, long nails painted some glossy taupe or peach color, gold jewelry jingling on her wrist, gold rings sparkling on her fingers, gold hoops in her ears. She will wear Supergas with gauze, or loafers with linen. She will shadow her eyes, add two or three layers of mascara, and a flash of blush. She will probably be late but she will try not to be because even though she’ll know she has a reserved seat she knows it drives me crazy. And she will sit in the front row, where I’ve reserved said seat, even though she hates sitting in the front row for anything, and she will just be there, like she said she would, like she always has been.