I was her only child and she was my exclusive mother. I loved my uniqueness, which had given me a lot of innocent joy. My fatherless childhood was mostly carefree and secured, although I’d spent a large part of it waiting for her to come home from work. In the evenings, as I heard her open the door, I would run towards her along the corridor and intoxicate myself with her kisses that abundantly made up for the hours of loneliness. I remember one evening when she came home later than usual. I was already ten years old and didn’t need anymore the tiresome babysitting of Miriam the neighbour. Mum’s hair was wet and her skin had absorbed the chill of the winter night that sizzled beyond the walls. Her eyes projected terrible exhaustion. She rejected her usual cup of tea, walked to the living room and sprawled on the sofa.
“Albert left us,” she whispered with a blunt expression on her face.
“Eat something,” I said, pointing to the pot on the stove.
“No, let me be alone now,” she answered feebly, closed her blackened eyelashes and sank into her dreamless depths from which even an earthquake could not wake.
I covered her with a blanket, put the stranded pot into the fridge, went to my room and entrenched myself in my bed with one of the science fiction books she used to buy me. Before I fell asleep I could hear the sound of her dragging feet in front of my door, then the shower stream from the bathroom and finally the resonance of her sobbing which she struggled to stifle with her pillow.
I was sorry to lose Albert. He was her most delicate lover and the only one whose presence I could endure on our Saturday mornings. To make up for his shortness and baldness he was endowed with a pointy-chinned Apollo face and a rare sense of humour that cast a spell on mum and squeezed her best laughs out of her little body. He would take her in his silver Mercedes to luxurious hotels on weekends, during which I was forced to stay with Rita, her own mother, who reluctantly played the role of the grandma and whose sole wish was that her daughter would “finally marry that rich man and find some peace in her shitty life.”
Albert dissipated like smoke, and like all the men that preceded him he also left a dent of grief on her soul. She was just thirty then. Her bright hair was still abundant and brilliant, but her face was already notably scarred by the chisel of despair. She used to wake up at dawn, adorn herself diligently in front of the mirror, make my breakfast and take me to school. When I’d come back to the empty apartment there were usually boxes of food waiting for me on the threshold, however, I gradually taught myself to cook and did not need the generous services of Miriam, whose tears of pity obscured the sky of my merry orphanhood.
The pleasure cooking had given me was intensified by the anticipation of her arrival home, and her gratification had filled my heart with delight.
“I have a little chef at home,” she said once and kissed my forehead before closing herself in the bathroom for her long bathing ritual which she religiously performed.
Mum accepted my gastronomic authority with humility, although on Fridays she would still expropriate the kitchen in order to bake her wonderful cakes, whose unique quality I’ll never be able to recreate. On Saturday mornings, which were to us like small islands of shiny intimacy in the gloomy ocean of life, she would sometimes take me for a picnic by the river, and occasionally even borrow Miriam’s car to take me far away from our stifling apartment block – and on these days our life of poverty was richer than anything the world had to offer.
However, mum had slowly confined herself in the shell of her sorrow and her nights had tortured her with nameless yearnings. I would hear her wander within the walls like a captive ghost, and a few times, as dawn broke, I had found her lying on the sofa in front of the muted TV, her thin legs extending out from her nightdress and her hair covering her face like a veil of shame.
“You’re already a big boy,” she told me in one of those mornings, just after she hastily got dressed and put on a corny layer of makeup, “you don’t need your mummy anymore.”
She was right. The task of housekeeping was anyway simple, and since she’d stopped bringing her lovers to her own bed and had been absent more frequently I learned to enjoy the blessed peace of the nights and the sense of exclusive ownership of my little, shabby manor.
When I was fifteen I found a job at a steakhouse that had just opened on the riverbank, and although I was initially designated to be a busboy it didn’t take long until I became a proud and enthusiastic member of the kitchen crew. My humble salary delighted mum, so much so that she didn’t even utter a word of protest when I stopped attending school. She would just take her share and disappear into the night, and return the next day drained and unattainable, declining food and affection, rushing into the bathroom and scrubbing her flesh with the soapy sponge which could not remove the stains of her misery.
“You don’t want to know what she does with your money,” Rita told me on one of her rare visits while nibbling the rim of a cookie she’d just dunked into her tea, “and besides, she’s losing her wits. You’ve got a loony mother and I’m too old to take care of her.”
Though Rita’s prophecy wasn‘t quick to materialize, mum’s functioning did gradually erode as time went by. The demon of depression took over her entire being until it ultimately subdued her. She started secluding herself in the apartment for whole days, curled up in her bed or on the sofa like a forsaken kitten – staring silently at the screen, eating scarcely and drinking loads of black coffee. Even the expected dismissal from her workplace did not cause her to react beyond a lazy gesture of indifference and a sickly sigh. When I once dared to shake her out of her numbness and say a few words of reproach, she ground her teeth and growled at me while her eyes were burning with hatred:
“Leave me in peace, you annoying boy!” her dragon mouth spat towards me, “who are you to preach to me! I didn’t even want you! A fucking accident, that’s what you are! A miserable accident that happened to a stupid girl!”
I left her alone, and from then on I spent as little time as I could in the apartment, although I would still buy the necessary groceries and cook the dishes which she barely tasted. Most of my time and energy were devoted to my work, at which I continued to excel, and when I was seventeen Naomi’s house became my safe haven in the stormy sea of my young life.
Naomi was dwarfish, short tempered and charmingly frivolous. Her hair was crudely dreadlocked and her body possessed a kind of sweet and erotic chubbiness that had delighted my grateful fingers. She was seven years older than me. She saw me one day from the opposite bank while I was soaking my tired feet in the icy river. She came to sit by me and talked to me in such warm frankness that I couldn’t help falling directly into her sinister trap. She fell in love with me at the speed of light and declared that I wouldn’t have any choice but to submit to her tireless wooing. She slept with me the first night she took me to her humble home. She was my first one.
Under her guidance I got to know the secrets of the sense of touch and learned passion’s elusive language. Most of the time she’d ask me to be delicate and patient but once in a while she’d demand me to treat her in a domineering roughness, “like an unbridled whore on a dark street corner.” She used to mock my adolescence and my shyness but at the same time her love had become jealous and twisted to such an extent that she regarded any female presence around me as a genuine threat.
“One of them will steal you from me,” she told me one night when she came to pick me up after my shift, scanning distrustfully the cheerful cluster of waitresses that assembled in the kitchen.
“What will you do when it happens?” I asked.
“I’ll kill us both,” she answered with fabricated humour that could barely camouflage the burning pain in the bottom of her throat.
I had no intention of deserting her. Her friendship was to me like a blessing from heaven. She supported me all along in the tiresome care of my domestic nutcase and even drove us to the hospital the day mum, slender and fragile as a dried leaf, was finally admitted to the very pastoral psychiatric unit.
Time had hobbled slowly. Mum barricaded herself behind her walls and didn’t even bother to answer my phone calls, but had merely sent a few short text messages that hadn’t revealed anything. Naomi insisted that I move in with her for the three month of hospitalization and used that time to weave our weird relationship with rigid ropes of morbid addiction. Her feelings of alienation from the community in which she was born and the animosity she imagined seeing all around her locked us in a blurry bubble of solitude. Her mating habits lost completely their original tenderness. She dictated a fierce choreography of domination and subordination, and sometimes she would beg me to pull her hair harshly while she was barking her sensual delight at the wall of her narrow bedroom. As the storm would cease her body would become a wreck of sweaty organs and she’d lay her sweaty wild head on my chest and shed onto it thousands of tears of horror.
“I know you’re gonna leave me,” she wailed franticly, “in the end they all do.”
And she was right. The urge to flee the cuckoo’s nest appeared shortly after I moved into it and ripened fully when mum was released from the hospital. She returned to the apartment in a scorching August afternoon, not before she’d had her hair dyed and bought herself some new sets of clothes. Her spongy cheeks were stretched by an unwanted smile as a reaction to my visible astonishment.
“Yes, I put on some weight,” she said, kissed my chin, and started laying out her new skirts on the sofa.
“I’m hungry,” she added after a moment of awkward silent, “can you make something to eat?”
I went to the kitchen willing and eager and took the required groceries out, and while I was washing the vegetables and heating up the olive oil in the pan she came behind me, opened the cabinet under the sink and threw away a bundle of prescription drugs.
“I don’t need this shit anymore,” she grunted, then collected her folded clothes and locked herself in her room.
Darkness had descended over us and mum was still holed up in her shelter. A sterilized silence prevailed in the apartment, through whose open windows the dense summer evening was slowly invading. The cooked food was impatiently waiting on the stove. My smartphone was frequently vibrating from Naomi’s desperate suicide threats, which didn’t concern me at all. I was already well acquainted with her melodramatic tendencies, and I knew that she would soon capture another young and clueless prey along the river, bind it with her silk threads and intoxicate it with her sweet potions.
It was almost midnight when I woke up to the clattering noise of cutlery. I was lying on the sofa, my legs were heavy and my head was humming with inane thoughts. She was sitting at the table, stuffing her mouth like a refugee on the run. My nervous roaming didn’t distract her, and when she was done she brought her plate to the sink and went instantly into the bathroom.
After more than half an hour she opened her bedroom door and recoiled as she saw me sitting on her bed, among the carefully arranged stacks of her closet’s content.
“Are you leaving?”
She gazed at me with an alienated dread.
“For good?” I asked with a trembling voice.
“Where will you live?”
“You don’t need to know that.”
I stood up and caught her between the closet door and the wall. She bowed her head and put her palm between her closed eyes, gripping her nose bridge and shaking her body as if she was ardently praying.
“I’m starting all over again. You have no part in my new life. Don’t take it too hard. Anyway I’m not a real mother, and I’ve never been. I want out, as far away as possible. Another land, another language, another weather. I don’t belong here, in this middle eastern hell.”
She walked past me and sat down on the bed, pulling gently strands of her wet hair. Her eyes looked far beyond the boundaries of the room. Her lips trembled as she spoke.
It would be different this time, she said. She’d known him already for a few years. She met him during one of his frequent vacations in his homeland, and from the beginning he wooed her persistently. He was not young or particularly handsome, but he loved her and was willing to take her under his wings. When she was at the hospital she contacted him. He flew especially for her, and during his visits he excited her imagination with stories about the little American town in which he lived.
“The taxi is coming at five in the morning. Now get lost please, I have lots to do.”
She pulled a suitcase out of the closet and started packing her belongings, humming a melancholic melody, inaccessible and distant as her new country.
The night went by like a sleeping battleground before the inevitable clashes of dawn. The alarm clock woke me up from a restless sleep. The sound of her merry feet stabbed my soul like blunt arrows. She came out of the bathroom and started pulling her suitcase towards the door. I got up and ran along the corridor, as determined and excited as that child who greeted her when she arrived home from work. I grabbed her arm and started wailing uncontrollably.
“Please, mum. Don’t go. Please…”
My words blended with an enormous cascade of bitter tears.
She struggled with me as if she was fighting off an attacker at a dark street corner.
“Let go, you lunatic! Let go!”
“Mummy!.. Mummy!..” I recited again and again the expired magic spell.
She slipped away from my grasp, opened the door and vanished with her suitcase before I could regain my strength. I withdrew humbled, sat down on the sofa and let the weeping do with me as it pleased, until its wells ran completely dry.
The rising sun painted the air with shades of glistening crimson. The awakening street gradually added a background music of desolate routine. No force on earth could make me stay in that apartment, which from the moment of her departure was no longer my home. I got dressed swiftly and went down the stairs onto the summer-stricken streets. My steps were wobbly but my sense of direction was sober and steady. The lucid flow of water penetrated my hollow heart while I was walking along the river, and when I arrived at the opposite bank the village welcomed me with a familiar inhospitality. I walked shortly along its crumbling paths, and when I stood on the threshold of the little house and opened its door I inhaled gratefully its musty odours. Naomi rolled in her bed and scanned the uninvited guest in a sweet and wicked satisfaction.
“Hi,” she said and raised her blanket, “come and join me.”
I took my shoes off, plunged myself beside her and curled up with her warm, seductive flesh as if I was holding on to the last bits of life. Her caresses filled my body with a blind tranquillity and the whispers of her love accompanied me into the dark tunnel of sleep, from which I prayed I would never wake up.