Every day, for one year, I dreamed about the streets of Granada. I dreamed about the contours of their cobbled streets. I dreamed about the feelings they would stir in me, the wonder, magic, and comfort they would inject into me—the power they would have to heal me. I dreamed and I hoped, in a way I can’t remember now, that the beauty of those streets was going to save me.
The minute my bus entered the city, my dream, so carefully sewn, began to rip at the seams; traffic, modern architecture, and grimy secondhand stores appeared in my view. These were not the images I had seen on the program’s Web site. These were not the signs of the “small, quaint city” that was going to make me whole; the gray buildings, homeless dogs, and exhaust were not the threads I had used. They were too foreign, too dirty, too jarring. They might not be able to make me forget, I feared.
Making it to where we needed to be—a concrete sidewalk with ten Spanish women standing on it—seemed to take forever. My new “mother,” Lina, kissed me on both cheeks and I followed her to my new apartment. She spoke fast, and having had only one semester of Spanish, I struggled to catch a word I knew. She smelled like smoke but her apartment smelled like disinfectant. When she left me to unpack in my neat, tidy, and empty room, I collapsed on my bed, sobbing.
My mother has always told me that from the moment I was born, I have been waving goodbye. She likens this experience to the moment in The Wizard of Oz when the Munchkins are waving to Dorothy, saying, in a chorus, “goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.” “That is how you were,” she says. “Your little hand was waving goodbye to me and has been ever since. You have never wanted anything to do with me.” But as I soaked the pristine floral bedspread with tears, I knew that couldn’t possibly be true. I hated being away from her and wanted everything to do with her. I wanted her to be there so badly that I was embarrassed. But what would she have done, seeing me stuck there, unable to enjoy and explore a new city? Would she have crawled into bed and comforted me or told me to get over myself? With my mother, either was possible. With her, I have never known what to expect.
As I lay facedown on my new bed in Granada, I needed the latter. I needed her to tell me to “get over it,” to remind me that I was sturdy and strong, even though my dreams were bound to fall apart. I needed her to tell me that it was time to grab hold of reality, to weave the messy streets in with the cobbled ones, to wave goodbye. I needed her to remind me that I have always been good at leaving: that I had sleepovers before other children did, that I never experienced homesickness, that this would pass. I needed her to believe that I was and would always be fine even though I felt so thoroughly torn apart. And I needed her to be right.
Cutting the silence, my therapist once asked, “Is there any relationship in which you feel safe?”
Safe? I thought. What does safe even mean? I placed one leg over the other and then switched, again and again, over the course of fifteen minutes. I fidgeted with the edge of the tissue box and names shuffled through my head; I looked at the door—it was as a good a time as any to run. After many “uhs” and “I just don’t knows,” I came up with an answer.
“My mother,” I said. “My mother.”
When I was in seventh grade and had just been diagnosed with scoliosis, my mother crawled into bed with me. I couldn’t fall asleep because I was imagining the back brace I would have to wear—a contraption, I thought, that would hold me in too tightly and possibly suffocate me. I was imagining the surgery I might someday have to undergo, the surgeons breathing heavily through their blue cotton masks as they cut into my skin. When I told my mother I couldn’t sleep, she got out of bed, wrapped herself in a bathrobe, turned on my clock radio, and crawled into bed behind me.
“This was the trick I used when I was little,” she whispered in my ear. “When I couldn’t sleep, I just turned on the radio.”
She stayed until she thought I was asleep, but I remember feeling her body lift up and out of the bed. I remember feeling cold fill the space; I didn’t want her to go. I wanted her to stay there, right next to my back, her belly pressing into my crooked spine. But she left and didn’t say a word. The voices faded into jumble and put me to sleep.
When we first moved to Connecticut, the thought of being kidnapped terrified me. Even though we had lived for ten years in L.A., where earthquakes and riots were real and frightening occurrences, I had never been scared. But anything could happen in the country. It would be so easy, I often thought, for a man to climb up the big dark tree outside of my window, open it, slide right into my room, and grab me. I imagined his face painted white, his clothes completely black, and a gun swinging against his hip. My dad told me that he slept “like a cat,” but I knew this wasn’t true—I had walked into his room many times when he was asleep and he had never budged, not once. So one night, after trying to fall asleep for a long time, I went downstairs to my mother.
“What are you doing up, Laura?” She asked.
“I … I … ”
“What is it, Laura? You really should be in bed. Look at you; you are so tired.”
“I am scared of being kidnapped, Mom,” I said, shivering.
“Laura,” she smirked, “people kidnap children from famous and rich people. Trust me,” she said, “we are not that rich; you are not important enough to be kidnapped.”
The morning my dad told us that he had been having an affair for six years, my mother said to my siblings and me, “Just try and sleep now, just try. I, for one, haven’t slept in a year.” My siblings and I sat around the table, trying to eat our breakfast, while my parents held each other’s hands. My dad attempted to explain the last few years of his life: his mistress, their son, her recent bout of angry phone calls and her desperate need for attention, family, and love. My mother’s face looked like steel and she rolled her eyes, again and again, circulating his words around and around—her eyes were like two Ferris wheels and his words, unwanted passengers. When she took her hand from his and clasped it with her own, my toast lodged itself in my throat. It was as if her face were covered in plaster—hard plaster that would never crack, bend, or break—and I was terrified. I didn’t have plaster that thick and I couldn’t help but think that I would never want it; if you repress all the tears, your laughter might stop too.
Once the meeting was over and she told us to put on our bathing suits and help her get ready for a picnic at the lake, I couldn’t move. Didn’t she want what might have happened in another family or in a Hollywood movie—for her three children to come clambering up the stairs, fall into her lap, and hold her? To embrace her and the pain that they all felt? Of course she would have—wouldn’t any mother? How could she be ready to make turkey-and-cheese sandwiches, find the towels, and jump in the car? But she demanded it and so we did it; we treated it like we would any other summer afternoon for her sake and, in her opinion, ours.
When I was twelve, my mother had to give me a bath. She used a washcloth to get at the parts of my body that, since I had broken my collarbone, had been impossible to get to. She tried to get to my left armpit, to clean it out, because that was the armpit that my upper arm had been stuck against every day and night since the break. When my mom attempted to get to it, I felt nauseated. I was worried that all of the healing would be torn apart, that I would feel my bones rubbing against one another again. When she finally got to it, the smell was so terrible that we had to laugh.
I peered over the sling and saw my stomach; dark hair was growing underneath my belly button—dark hair I didn’t know if my mom had ever seen before. My mom stood over me; her belly glided above my head when she grabbed the shampoo. This was the belly that, at age twelve, I told myself I would never have because it was bigger than it used to be—it was the belly of three babies. When I have babies, I thought, I will work off all the weight like famous people do. Then I looked at her legs, the only part of her body that I was envious of, the only part I wished I had inherited. They bent toward me when it was time to get out of the tub. I used one arm to lift my body up and my mother stood, holding my underwear in her hands. I held her shoulder as I stepped into the underwear, one foot at a time.
My whole life people have said my mother and I look just alike—that we have the same mannerisms, the same droopy eyelids, and the same smile. At certain times, I have felt proud of this—my mother is beautiful. There are many pictures of her that make me pause and think that I want to look and be just like her. In one picture, she is standing in water up to her waist. She is wearing a bikini top and shorts and she looks invincible. It’s as if the river has stopped for her and the trees given up their glory to her smile. She has just dipped her head into the water and in the picture she is on her way back up, whipping her long blonde hair behind her. The strands are spread out like peacock feathers, each one opening wider for the shot. My mom is playful, I think, when I look at this picture; she doesn’t care about getting her hair wet and she can flip it back without a care in the world.
When I found out about the affair, I looked at this picture every day; I scrutinized my mother’s looks. I stared at her, flipping her hair back in the water, and wondered if my life would be the same as hers: if someday I would grow up from being a young, carefree teenager to a fifty-year-old woman whose husband was leaving her too. During breakfast, a walk, or a drive, I examined her face and her body to find some explanation; somehow each wrinkle, each cellulite dent, and each vein became reasons for my father’s affair. It was that simple: my father cheated because my mother was not as pretty as she had been. It was just that simple.
When my father finally left, I escorted my mother to cocktail party after cocktail party. And for some reason, I resented her for it. It seemed odd not to blame my father, not to fault him for taking what appeared like the “easy way out” and leaving me there to be my mother’s date, but my mother’s determination to go at all, in the face of his leaving, made me cringe. Did we really have to put on a good face for the stuffy country-club-goers of Norfolk? Night after night, I was forced to deflect the inevitable question—“What is your father up to these days?”—with a smile on my face.
I understood his leave-taking more than I understood how my mother could stand in the fading summer light, drinking glasses of wine and pretending like it wasn’t odd that I was the one who had brought her there. I understood his need for change more than I could comprehend her desire to keep it all the same: to wear the same dresses, to go to the same parties and chat with the same people. It felt like such a fierce denial of all of the mess—the mess I had been attempting to cope with. Didn’t she just want to scream?
At some point, I finally found the pristine white houses I had been searching for in Granada. I finally saw the scene that my program had posted on its Web site. I saw flamenco dancers pound their heels into the ground. I ate Manchego cheese and visited the Alhambra. And all of it was stunning. But the need for my mother that I felt those first days in Granada never subsided. And I couldn’t understand it. I had gone to Spain to escape her. To escape everything associated with home. Why, then, did I need her so badly? It didn’t make sense to me and it still doesn’t now, that I craved her character traits—especially the ones I had learned to despise—to be with me from moment to moment, from day to day.
My tour guide at the Alhambra told us that the detailed interior spaces that we were taking photographs of and looking at with wonder used to be even more spectacular. The Arabic letters that were now off-white, she noted, used to be vibrant reds, blues, and greens. The outside of the fort, however, was always meant to be a dull gray. The Moors, she told us, didn’t believe that outsiders should be able to see the intricate artwork that lay on the other side of the walls. The inside was a privileged space for them, she said, and the beauty of it meant a great deal.
I stood and studied the decorative space and I couldn’t help but feel blessed for being able to see this side of the building, this side I was never meant to see. At first, I wished it still held all of its color, that it was still as radiant as it was hundreds of years ago. But it was not as if it held any less power now; I still escaped, in a sense, as I wandered through the interior spaces. I felt like I was in a different world as I peered into the nooks where women shared their tea and wandered across the courtyard where men might have spent their days basking in the sun. That’s the true beauty of this place, I thought: it releases you but you remain contained; there is openness and vulnerability built into its very structure, hiding behind its bold and stoic walls.