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  • The Witness
  • May-lee Chai (bio)

My mother had been calling every night for weeks, always a new complaint. The new dog couldn’t be housebroken, the weather was too windy; finally, the linoleum would not come clean. [End Page 18]

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[End Page 19]

There was a grayish scum that wouldn’t scrub off. I had no idea what was really going on.

“Replace it,” I said.

“I can’t! It’s too expensive!” my mother practically shrieked.

“Then just ignore it.”

“I would love to ignore it; do you think I enjoy mopping? Your father complains about it.”

I sighed. I had homework, hours of Chinese yet to read. My classmates from China could breeze through a novel in a weekend. I labored for hours with my dictionaries to get through my daily twenty pages. But I couldn’t complain. It was my fault for going into comparative literature. My mother would only remind me that she had hoped I would become a doctor. I had such good grades, I could memorize things, why hadn’t I listened to her? No point reminding her that I was squeamish. Even as a child I’d fainted at the sight of blood, at every vaccination, every time they showed those films on the human body. After I’d vomited during the video on the digestive tract, the school nurse had had to call my mother to come and pick me up.

I looked at the clock. Ten forty-five.

“Mom, why don’t you come visit me? There’s a conference. Novel of the Americas. You’d like it.”

“I can’t come. Your father needs me.”

“Carlos Fuentes is speaking. You always told me how much you liked his novels when you were a student.”

“Oh, Carlos Fuentes.” Her voice softened.

“Think about it. Don’t worry about the floor.” Then I told her I loved her and hung up. Back to my homework.

That Friday my mother drove the three and a half hours it took to get to Boulder to visit, arriving in the evening. She had waited to leave until late afternoon, first preparing meals for my father to eat while she was gone, taping instructions for reheating them on the refrigerator door, watering all her plants, making sure the dog food was labeled in the laundry room.

As I set up the foam mattress in my living room, Mom looked around my messy apartment. “You like to live like this.” She started dusting, moving my piles of books, scooting the chairs in and out as I sat at the kitchen table.

“Please, Mom. I’m trying to grade papers. Don’t fuss.” [End Page 20]

“Oh, so I’m fussing.” She threw her Pledge-soaked paper towel directly onto the floor, missing the trash can by a foot. She sat in the one armchair and turned on David Letterman. She laughed loudly at every joke. “Oh, that Paul,” she exclaimed, like punctuation that I could not ignore, until I moved into my bedroom. From the mattress that night she threw her used Kleenex onto the floor as well. “I’m enjoying this,” she called to me. “I never realized I don’t have to clean. This is fun.”

I picked up her Kleenex. “At least aim for the wastebasket,” I sighed.

The next morning the Carlos Fuentes reading was scheduled for eleven. Mom was up before eight. She sprayed herself with perfume. She ratted her hair. She even ironed the blue dress she’d brought in her overnight case. “I can’t believe you have a real iron.”

“Of course I have an iron, Mom,” I murmured from my futon. But I didn’t want to argue. The truth was, I was a little worried about her. Everyone else worried about my father, who’d had a heart attack two years earlier. But he had recovered quickly, missed a few weeks of classes, and was back to work the following semester. It was Mom who had become unhinged, obsessing about housework and cleanliness and cleaning products for the first time that I could remember.



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pp. 18-32
Launched on MUSE
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