My boyfriend’s mother didn’t use hand dryers in public restrooms because she said they suck shit particles out of the air and blow them right back at you. She used to be a nurse and once did hospice care for a famous boxer. When I first stopped eating meat, she fed me crab dip and watched me take a bite, kept her eyes on me as I realized. By the time I started college, what had been living in her lungs for the past two years was gone. Nuked. But in its absence, something else. She was a small woman, bitter, and maybe dying. She was someone loved by someone I loved. I tried hard not to want her to get it over with.
I remember her body smelled like soup. Sweat puddled into the yellow bowls of her elbows and neck. We came home from school every weekend to watch her fester in the same hospital where she used to work. She complained the nurses infantilized her and accused them of stealing her things. I taught them everything they know, she said, then she stopped opening her mouth at all. She’d only drink water if we put the straw to her lips ourselves. The doctor said she was still in remission. Depression sometimes happens after all that chemo. Her case worker told us they needed to give her bed to someone who was actively trying to stay alive.
I thought often, then and now, about the paths womanhood can take. My own mother was and is beautiful, and kind. Does one follow the other? She dances after a half glass of wine and once a decade takes a shot of Fireball. For a long time I wasn’t interested in my mother, because I thought her goodness was a given. If I could only stay kind and beautiful, I, too, could survive on the happiness contained in a single shot of frat boy whiskey. But I always had trouble with kindness—growing up, I made comedic illustrations of my sister’s various shortcomings. I had trouble with beauty—I cut my own eyelashes with a pair of wriggly-edged craft scissors.
My boyfriend’s mother hated perfume, other women her age, and her ex-husband. She hated being ragdolled into the wheelchair, but she hadn’t used her legs in weeks. They released her to us under the condition that we wouldn’t make any stops between here and the long-term rehab facility, that we wouldn’t try to get her in and out of the car without help from a medical professional. But she wanted to go home, just for a minute. She mouthed something about a certain sweatshirt and wouldn’t change her mind. We knew what she really wanted was a cigarette. Neither of us ever learned how to say no to her.
The house smelled like cat piss. They came up to us, yodeling their hunger. I covered my mouth and breathed through my fingers. I’d offered to clean for her, when she first got sick, but she looked at me with such disdain I liquified. No, thank you, she said. Might as well have spat. Now, she went into her bedroom. I balanced on the edge of the couch, fighting the urge to crack windows. My boyfriend fed the cats and refilled their water. Didn’t mention or even seem to notice the stench or the state of the house, and I wondered if he was too much like his mother. If it would become, someday, too hard to love him.
I was still a virgin when we started talking about marriage, the way my parents and his parents had, the way all young people did in the kind of corn-fed town where we grew up. When I was sixteen and he was eighteen, his mother told him he better not fuck me or he could go to jail. He got so mad he locked himself in his room, leaving her and me alone to watch a TV reenactment of a woman being murdered, volume low, our mutual fear of sex simmering between us.
When we did it, finally, it was in the basement of his mother’s house. I didn’t want it. He was crying. He said if you love me, you’ll let me. I said I do, so I did.
We started to mark the time. The rehab center was expecting us. Should we check on her? He didn’t think so. Then a sound came from his mother’s room and it turned out to be my name, the softest it’d ever been in her mouth.
The bedroom was the one place the cats weren’t allowed, so the cigarette smell was almost like fresh air. She was in the master bathroom, slumped against the tub, taking shallow breaths. A stub of a cigarette near her fingers, and she’d soiled herself. A brown stain all down her legs. Pooled on the tile beneath her.
The cruelest thing I could have done was wait for her to ask for help. I wanted to pretend I didn’t notice, make her say it out loud. This woman, so proud, reduced to a mess of her own shit, needing me.
Instead, I picked up her cigarette and set it on the lip of the tub. I peeled her shirt off over her head, trying not to let the wet hem of it flap against her face. She held onto my shoulder so I could lift her enough to slide her pants out from under her, and off.
Is there a washcloth? I asked. She pointed. The water wouldn’t heat up. I wondered at the last time she paid the bill.
I’m sorry, I said, pressing the cold cloth to the side of her left thigh and pulling it down across the worst of the mess. Like a cat’s tongue across a newborn’s matted nape. She winced at the coarseness and the cold against her feverish skin.
Her eyes were closed and I was going to have to reach underneath her. I’m sorry, I said again, touching her on the shoulder so she could see what I needed her to do. She wrapped her arms around my neck and clung loosely as I lifted her again, held her long enough to reach the rest of it, shuffled over to set her down in a clean place. She let go of my neck. I rinsed her clothes in the tub the best I could and found her fresh ones. Even those smelled like smoke.
Should we go now? I asked. Do you want to go?
My boyfriend met us in the hall. We carried her to the car, pushing the cats out of the way with our feet. We took her to the rehab center and gave her over to strangers we would pay to care about her. Who would talk to her as if she were a child, or a dying person.
I went back to my parents’ house to take a shower. I rinsed my boyfriend’s mother’s sweat from my skin, scrubbed away her smell until my arms stung. I sat naked on the floor of my childhood bedroom for a long time. I wondered where it came from—the giving up. How deep in her body was the rot, and how did it get that way, and when would it happen to me.