In my twenties, a bed was not a place of comfort. Nor was it sexy or alluring. While others my age were finding forgotten pairs of underwear in the tangle of their bedsheets, or snuggling up to Prince Charming Enough, I was lying next to my mother, who had fallen under an avalanche of diseases and broken bones. Beneath the cancer, lupus, vertigo, fibromyalgia, fractured foot and several dislocated vertebrae was the woman who once spoon-fed me baby mush and let me cry in her lap when Angela Peacock wouldnâ€™t be my third-grade penpal. Now this woman was inches away from me, clearly dying, and the last thing I felt between us was intimacy.
I usually showed up to my motherâ€™s house, ninety miles away from my shifty Hollywood apartment, hungover. In my motherâ€™s room, the air conditioner was set to a moderate freeze, with only a crack between the drapes revealing the relentless bright of the Southern California that was going on without us. The television was turned to some sitcom that rattled the walls with recorded laughter, and awaiting me on my vacant side of the mattress was the bounty of her catalogue and magazine subscriptionsâ€”People, US Weekly, TV Guide, Landâ€™s End. On the other side was where she laid, flat on her back, a styrofoam pad cradling her spine, her bed made under her. Even though she spent nearly every hour of every day in that bed, never did she ever get under the covers. Instead, casually strewn across her legs was a throw blanket, as if she could fling it off, leave at any time, and no one would suspect that an invalid had ever been there.
â€œIs that you,â€ she cried out from her room, at the opening of the front door. â€œOf course itâ€™s me,â€ I said. â€œWhat are you doing?â€ she called out. â€œNothing,â€ I yelled back, putzing around the kitchen. A few minutes later, I was in her bedroom doorway with a snack in my hand. â€œThat looks good,â€ she commented, the plate hovering above her eye level. â€œItâ€™s just toast, Mom,â€ I said. She stretched out her arm and patted the emptiness next to her. I exhaled and propped myself up against the headboard, tearing off pieces of bread, one at a time. I knew once the last bite was eaten, I had to settle into my regular positionâ€”back flat, head propped up by a single pillow, eyes on the screen in front of meâ€”not in, but on her bed.
My hangover usually started to recede a few hours into our Friends-Seinfeld-General Hospital marathon. Thatâ€™s when remorse started to brewâ€”the cloud of numbness colliding with the last traces of boozy depressants and the reemergence of my hyper-analytical self. Most times I could override this agitation with other things to worry aboutâ€”what bar I was going to meet my friends at later, when Iâ€™d make time to do my laundry. Other times I could not.
I looked over at my mother on this particular afternoon and noticed the curls falling around her porcelain face, spilling onto her pillow. Her eyes, an already diluted green in color, were watery and glassy, somewhere between the verge of tears and a Zen-like plateau staring through the television screen. I turned on my side and scooted closer. â€œTickle my arm,â€ she asked, feeling me nestle in. She maintained her focus on Joey, Chandler and Monica, as I ran my fingers up and down the loose skin of her arm, my body continuing to inch my way toward her pillow. Her curls felt soft and springy against my nose. My mother, though 50 pounds heavier than the one from my childhood, still made sure to look her best, or as best she could. Her mascara was clumpy and her bangs were curled under, tasks done by lifting her head for a few painful seconds at a time to look into a folding mirror placed on her lap. Near the back, however, I could I could see a few wispy hairs, flattened and tangled, popping up behind her nape.
I moved into her neck. A whiff of night cream, stale hairspray and the Oscar de la Renta I used to spray on my teenage wrists smelled so warm, so permanent. I inhaled. I inhaled again. I nuzzled into her shoulder, then pulled away. I wanted to breathe in that smell forever, yet it only reminded me that thereâ€™d come a time, most likely very soon, when I wouldnâ€™t be able to recreate that chemistry from memory alone.
I flipped over and gave her my back. She could see my body, know I was there. Iâ€™d stick around, but giving her my shell was all I was capable of.
This scenario was much different than how my mother and I spent summer afternoons as a childâ€”she and I sprawled out on her mattress, where posts jutted out from the corners, connecting in branch-like patterns over our heads. We salted watermelon wedges and ate them from tin pans. Read Nancy Drew and The Sun Also Rises with our feet in the air. Shaded and traced pictures from coloring books in silence, sharing an occasional tidbit of gossip about a classmate or one of the other teachers in my motherâ€™s English department. Back then, I felt like her confidantâ€”privileged she brought me into her retreat and making me feel like her closest girlfriend.
Now any conversation we had between flipping through magazines and over commercial breaks was not only light, but also tedious. â€œAre you growing out your hair, Jessica?â€ â€œDid you see that dress that J-Lo wore to the Grammyâ€™s?â€ Like a pubescent child, I gave her one-word answersâ€”yeah, lame, whateverâ€”and ignored the little ways she was reaching out, attempting to make our mother-daughter interactions neutral and everyday. The sicker she became, the more irritated I grew over what neither of us could say. It was easiest to sit in silence, frustrated, and let the laugh track wash over us.
I could tell by my motherâ€™s little sporadic pouts that she was disappointed by my huffiness and disengagement, but most of the time, she hid any feelings she had through a haze of painkillers and antidepressants. Brands and dosages I never bothered to learn. One bottle I remember read Ativan, which I later learned is prescribed to schizophrenics. Otherwise, the doling out of her medications was part of my stepdadâ€™s duties. He was the handler of illness logistics (taking her to doctorsâ€™ visits, picking up prescriptions) and could be found in his office, the second bedroom, if you needed him. My job was to just to lie there and keep her company, a position heâ€™d relinquished, when he transitioned from lover to nurse, long ago.
My sedative of choice was a vodka haze. If I knew I had to go over to my motherâ€™s the following day, I made sure to stay out way past midnight. As soon as I got off my waitressing shift, a job I fell into after college, I drove to the nearest bar with my coworkers. If I noticed my neighbors, the Stoners, still had their lights on when I got off the elevator to my apartment that night, I joined them for one last beer. Around 3 or 4 a.m., I stumbled into bed. Sometimes, all I managed to take off before passing outâ€”face first onto my mattressâ€”were my shoes.
Around ten most mornings, I started to squirm in my sheets and groan. My body was either too hot or too cold. My feet felt dirty. The smoke in my hair made me want to vomit. And I usually did. But as uncomfortable as I was in my own bed, it still took me a full twenty minutes to gather enough strength to fling off the covers and head to the bathroom. It took me another two hours to chew on some bread, shower and pour myself to the car for a two-hour drive to my motherâ€™s.
In my own bed, I didnâ€™t have much more to offer than a random moment of consciousness either. If I was in it, I was usually alone. During the last eighteen months of my motherâ€™s lifeâ€”the only time Iâ€™d been single since high schoolâ€”I only slept with a handful of men and those men were usually as drunk as I was when we rolled around together for a sloppy seven minutes.
My most memorable one-night stand was with a Playgirl model. That night at the club, my drink finished, our conversation on pause, his stare saying â€œNow what?â€ I decided to invite him back to my place. Itâ€™d make a great story to tell my friends, I thought. â€œHe was definitely qualified to be in Playgirl,â€ I bragged after our encounter. But looking back, I didnâ€™t even care about the sex or his status. What mattered most to me was that I was the one he chose to have sex with that night. For a few seconds, I had his attention. And later that night in bed, when I shivered at the touch of his lips on my neck, his mouth lingered there longer, wanting to please me. A stranger was considering my desires at a time when I wasnâ€™t even sure what my desires were. This is the detail that stands out to me now.
But like all of my one-night stands, once the sex was over, he left. Usually, I was glad to see them go. For whatever fleeting moment we had together, I got to physically feel something enter me, something connect my body to another human body. Then a release. I didnâ€™t want ruin the release by waking up to some strangerâ€™s feet brushing up against mine or having to feign sleep while I waited for him to leave quietly.
However, with Mr. Playgirl, I felt different. As he started to put his pants back on, I had an urge to pull him back into bed, to make me feel wanted and filled again. â€œIs it okay if I take off?â€ he asked in the dim of the streetlights coming through the window. I shrugged. He finished buttoning his fly. Fill me, FILL ME, my eyes prayed to the top of his still-perfectly gelled head. He swept his shirt from the floor and raised his hand in a goodbye. I turned away from the door, feeling the emptiness inside of me expand again, reminding me that our connection was immediate, singular, over.
On my motherâ€™s bed, when that abyss in my stomach, that hollowness in my heart grew wider, I filled it with food. This was usually when the remorse kicked in. I too had put on 20 pounds in the last few years, and by 4 in the afternoon, I was either concocting some sort of low-carb weight-loss regiment or planning an escape to her gymâ€™s treadmill. Or I was countering those attempts by subtracting the minutes until dinner. After dinner was over, the countdown to meeting a friend for a drink would begin. (If I leave here by 8, will I have enough time to meet my friends at the bar? Will they be done with work? Could I wait for them at work? Would that seem desperate?) The only way I could think to end the incessant plans and countdowns was to get out of bed, and the best excuse I had was to eat. â€œMom, you want a Peppermint Patty?â€ I asked. Yes, she said. She always said yes.
Once the candy was eaten and the wrappers were between us, I felt guilty about my weight again. Every few breaths, I slyly tucked in my stomach and pinched my love handles. I planned for a stricter workout routine tomorrow. Then I looked at the clock again. 4:15. Two hours until I could grab dinner, I thought. Reward. Punishment. Repeat.
When I left my motherâ€™s house every week, the last place I wanted to go was home, where an empty bed awaited me. I often met up with my coworkers, especially Dan, the only straight guy I worked with, the man that was literally the most accessible in my day-to-day life.
He too was twenty-four, and a fellow sleepwalker floating through a cycle of working and partying. Unlike me, however, his greatest daily concern was making enough tip money to fill up his gas tank and buy pack of Parliaments.
Dan and I usually stopped at a bar after our shift, and even though I preferred his bed to mine, I still procrastinated entering it. Like most twentysomethings, this guy liked sex, but by this point, it was hard for me to get through the minutes without thinking about the minutes; working up a sex drive had become not just unfathomable, but completely uninteresting. I hoped that by ordering a fourth or fifth beer, we both would just go back to his place, get under the covers and let the dark drown out the heaviness of the day.
But I knew to keep him around, I had to satisfy him. So I figured out how to get him off as quickly as possible. A hand job, a deep moan, a breathy whisper in his ear. I didnâ€™t care about foreplay or him pleasing me. I was no longer interested in the promise of â€œreleaseâ€ because I knew it wasnâ€™t a release I could hold on to. My body was a vessel, something to get me from A to B, and I just wanted to get to the part after he came, when I would curl up in a ball and feel the warmth of his chest behind me.
In the last few months of my motherâ€™s life, I saw Dan more and more, and even after she died, we continued this ritualâ€”after-work drinks, a half-attempt at fooling around, passing out, intervals of cuddling. Though I was relieved to no longer be obligated to lie in a bed with another person, I craved the company. But as soon as it arrived, I resented it.
One night after sex, Dan read in bed while I lay awake with my mind spinning. My dead mother creeped in and out of my thoughts, along with questions I didnâ€™t want to know the answer to like â€œWhere is this relationship heading?â€ The twitch to get out of bed had become a full-blown throb, but I had just used the bathroom and pillaging through my sorta-boyfriendsâ€™s cabinets around 1 a.m. seemed, at the very least, unattractive. Instead, I looked over at him, his eyes soft, his defenses down. â€œWhat?â€ he asked half jokingly, half suspiciously. His head was out of his book but his body hadnâ€™t moved any closer. â€œNothing,â€ I said. He went back to reading. His thick, masculine hand turned one page, and then another. He was unbothered by my non-answer, and unlike me, could actually concentrate on the task at hand. I imagined that when heâ€™d eventually shut off the light, heâ€™d fall straight to sleep. Heâ€™d have pleasant dreams and wake up unfazed. I hated him.
â€œDan, did you have a crush on Kelly before you dated me?â€ I blurted, referring to a coworker of ours.
â€œI can tell you always liked her.â€
â€œWhy are you asking this now?â€
â€œBecause I donâ€™t know, I wanna know. I donâ€™t want to be with someone who secretly wants to be with someone else.â€
â€œWhat? Why do you always have to be so crazy?â€
We went at it for a few minutes, hurling silly accusations at each other, until he eventually flipped off the light and turned over on his side.
This line of questioning slowly became part of our repertoire and Iâ€™d like to think, night after night, I was looking for a different result when I started in on himâ€”some newfound maturity from either us, reassurance that he cared, or that whatever we had, it needed to be what it was for now. But it also felt good to get a reaction, even if it was anger or annoyance.
Most mornings, however, the day would start just like the lastâ€”with frozen moments and invented dialogues awaking me. These scenes were so jumbled, so much something I tried to forget, that even now, itâ€™s hard to explain their form. (The last image of my mother in her nursing home bed, her mouth wide open, possibly in mid-scream? The boniness of hand when I put my fingers through hers? The formality of the printed words â€œwishing you another year of happinessâ€ in her last birthday card to me?) Whatever they were, I couldnâ€™t shake them, nor could I express this nervousness when I looked over and saw Danâ€™s eyelashes peacefully shut. So I jumped out of bed and put my clothes on before he started to rustle.
I thought about walking out the door and driving into nowhere. But I never left without saying goodbye. Most of the time I couldnâ€™t even bear to leave at all. Instead, I paced around his living room carpet until it seemed like I had overstayed my welcome, or he threw on a tank top, grabbed his basketball and motioned toward the door.
My greatest goal back then was to get to nightfall. When the moon came out and the bar closed in the evening, I knew this guy would be there again, ready to climb back in with me. Sometimes I didnâ€™t go there; sometimes it wasnâ€™t enough. Other times, it felt good to simply land.
Jessica Machado is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Bust, The Awl and The Economist’s More Intelligent Life, among other publications. You can read more about her mistakes atÂ baggageclaimed.tumblr.com.