Mom’s Desert


Smell of slick summer fog, and wet asphalt. San Francisco. 1966. On Mom’s first date with my father, she agreed to copilot his motorcycle. She wore sandals, and a long pink skirt hitched up and knotted above her knees. When they crashed, Mom was thrown onto a grassy median, but not before the concrete curb tore off her toenails. My father, unluckier, slid across the road, shredding half of his leg skin. Still, he carried Mom in his arms, up the steps of a blue house, placed her gently down, then passed out. Mom lay there on the porch, bleeding with him, her pulpy toes soft as squash soup.

They shared a room in the hospital. Imagine: their four legs hitched in the air. For weeks, they shared the same pus and bandaged sweat smells. That sort of rubbery, meaty, salty smell you can’t get enough of, especially when it’s your own, or someone you love. They had fifty more hospital dates, full of limping and scab-picking and ointment. Then, they had me.


Mom cooked breakfast for dinner: flat fried eggs propped up on torn chunks of buttered baguette. I was eight. Mom sipped wine, and watched me watching her toes; her big right toenail was still missing. Nine had grown back: thick, opaque, but without the faint white crescents above the cuticles. I imagined the original ten, painted pink to match Mom’s skirt, scattered and buried in the grassy median. In their place grew neon pink earthworms, bright fuschia pebbles, magenta gophers.

Dad was an amateur actor, and a holiday music freak deeply in love with steak sauce, said Mom on the phone to her friend while I ate dinner. Mom described how she caught Dad the previous week, squeezing a young actress’ “peaches” in his dressing room at the community theater. “I just screamed ‘SEX!’ from the doorway. I didn’t know what else to do.” She described with sad satisfaction how Dad frantically stuffed his excited “grapes” back in his jeans, snagging skin in the zipper, how he howled.

“Why did he do it?” I asked when she hung up.

Mom did not answer my question, instead, blocked the saltshaker with her paw when I tried to use it on my eggs. “Too much,” she said, rigid and pointed as my fork. I pushed my plate away. “Why don’t you finish your food? Do you think eggs grow on trees?” She dug into imaginary empty pockets and commanded her lap, “Money, come out!” I smiled, despite myself.

“Why are you smiling?”

“Because you are.”

“No. You misread my face.”

I kept quiet, sat on my real thoughts like a bird warming its eggs high up on a tree. I thought of how, when the time was right, when the excitement was near, I would get up and just let those eggs roll out the nest. Crash! Splat! Tender yellow and wet.


Mom was raised on the hot, arid, western edge of China. She often compared our foggy Ocean Beach to the blazing sands and flash floods of her youth. She described the idiots on plywood riding water, the sound of the flash flood’s roar, her family’s poverty, and her rural desert upbringing. She once told my father that she’ll know she’s made it in life when she has a fridge with an icemaker.

After Dad left us, we moved to a new apartment with a view of Lake Merritt and an icemaker. Mom left our ice cube trays in our old freezer, stacked, empty, ready for someone else’s cold, clear water.


The horoscope for Pisces in the Sunday Chronicle said, “Water is life. But true love is smell. If you love someone’s smell – skin smell, sweat smell, mouth smell, those deep dark inside of you smells – it’s true love.”

“Then you must true love Beatrice.” Mom poked me playfully with her smooth big toe. She was thinking of how I liked to run my fingers along the inside of our bulldog’s drooping lips, then smell the wetness. It was all mossy and meaty and decaying wood. And when Beatrice yawned, I stuck my face right inside her gentle underbite.

The day Dad moved out, Mom let Dad bury his nose in her long black hair, still wet from her morning shower and smelling of citrus and rose; he told her that he loved her shampoo.

I think, now, that this was him saying sorry.

I remember these things about that day, too:

Going to the beach so we wouldn’t have to watch Dad pack his things.

The foghorn’s slow, deep bellow.

Finding a stranded sea turtle, its enormous shell, heavy, round and brown as our coffee table.

Black sand fleas swarming our ankles and the turtle’s leathery flippers.

Beatrice licking the turtle’s large, black eye.

The long track carved in the sand where the turtle had dragged itself from the water.

Begging Mom to drive the turtle to the animal hospital.

Mom sounding like a disapproving scientist when she said, “The turtle should die on this beach. It shouldn’t die in the back of a Subaru.”

Mom watching me watch the turtle.


On our way back home from the emergency animal clinic, we were pulled over for making a wrong turn down a one-way street. It was a cold evening, damp and quiet. My ankles itched, cherry red spots, first-rate beach rash. I pushed my nose into Beatrice’s face folds, smelled a million things at once: ocean saltiness, seaweed, dead turtle, sweet and putrid. When the policeman returned to his patrol car, Mom smacked the steering wheel with her palm, whispered fiercely, her excitement like pink neon, “This cop’s an asshole! That vet was an asshole!” The veterinarian had lectured Mom on the importance of leaving wildlife in its natural habitat, especially a turtle that was already dead. Mom had nodded obediently, fists clenched below the counter, her long pink nails digging deep red crescents in her palms. I did the same, in solidarity, as if to say, “It’s not our fault," but my nails were too short.

Mom checked her rearview mirror, frowned at the cop writing our ticket. There was a sound down the street; someone shouting a woman’s name. Maybe for their cat? Maybe their Mom? The night clouds hung low, dark and cool.

Mom said, “I just feel like…I just want to turn right, and the whole world is turning left.”

I nodded, watched the light from cars passing by light up the brown age-spot on Mom’s cheek and my smooth, sunburned tops of my knees, and thought, Shiny us. Beatrice crawled over the armrest onto my lap and I scratched her belly, released the deepest scent of her fur into the air. Biscuits and warm bread. My fingers traced the tiny pink scar on her stomach where she once had her puppy belly torn by the vet, insides shifted, no more room for puppies. I thought: fingers and skin remember. Beatrice barked. I made a ring with my hands and muzzled her snout; she pulled away, but I held tight. After I let go, I asked Mom, “Why didn’t you want to save the turtle?”

“I don’t know.” She shook her head. “Why did you?”


In our new kitchen, Mom filled a glass with ice for my apple juice, after school. I held up a piece of paper marked up with bright red slashes and a big letter “C” circled three times, at the top. I proclaimed, “Math is an asshole!” Mom’s laughter, sad and generous, sounded like a flash flood moving at top speed. I pictured Mom’s desert, the parched grasses bleached white by a white sun, the winds picking up, silvery clouds rolling in. I pictured scrambling on the sandy banks towards the waves. Cheering wantonly though glued to the shore. Mom’s toes digging into the wet sand; spoons in pudding. I pictured the fervor and risk, the overheated dreams of those idiots on plywood. And Mom, waiting to cross all night; she would wait, unglued, edging closer to the crumbling shore as the world rushed on.

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