A True Red
(by Naya Clark)
Finding time on the weekends to spend with my mom is either foreboding or pure excitement, depending on how she’s feeling. If her stomach is hurting—she’s recovering from intestinal and ovarian surgery—and bills are due, the day brings the kind of intense anxiety I know my single mother can feel and project. She goes into action—wiping down counters with vigor, moving potted plants and decorative items, then moving them back again. If I say, “Mom, can you just chill and have a seat?” she’ll respond with something snarky like “You have a seat” or “I see I’m not wanted here.”
I’ve been on my own for years, and my brother, finishing up college, does his own thing. Although he lives at home, he and my mother barely see each other anymore. I fear it makes Mom lonely. She doesn’t know what to do with her empty nest. It’s as if her body realized that she doesn't have to worry over and care for children anymore, so it gave up and got sick. But she’s always Mom. When we’re out running errands together, a car just in front of us stops abruptly, and she slams on the brakes, reaching across to hold me back, like her frail arm is going to stop me from flying through the windshield. She still carries baby wipes and dental floss in her bag “just in case,” and she still says “beddy-bye” when referring to bedtime. My brother and I roll our eyes like embarrassed teenagers. But we love it.
Way before my mother got sick, we spent time together easily. We’d punctuate our errands with food. After shopping at TJ Maxx, we’d stop at the Japanese restaurant that shares the same shopping center to order California rolls and crispy, greasy vegetable tempura. She’d put a heap of wasabi in her soy sauce. On lazy days, we’d agree on Filet-O-Fish sandwiches from McDonald’s, but we never called it the name on the box. We pronounced it, as one word: fishfilaysamwich. Sometimes we’d go to an Indian buffet and enjoy heaping plates of orange masala, chicken tandoori, and garlic naan. But after her surgery, spicy food became an assault, crippling her in bed for the rest of the day. She’d curl up and cry. Now I wish I could eat spicy food with my mom, but I’m afraid of sending her to the ER.
On good days, my mom has a bubbly, childlike excitement. She picks me up with a shopping list—a table for the foyer, a fragrance diffuser, and “a true red lipstick.” Like that’s going to happen. She went to a trade school for chemistry, got a degree in nutrition, and used to work in cosmetic, fragrance, and food labs. She knows everything that’s in everything—the mild yellow undertones in a coral lipstick, the subtle blue in another. She knows that the time of day will determine how a lipstick looks because of the sun’s reflection. It’s almost impossible for her to find a lipstick she likes.
When Mom was working, she’d get home cranky and exhausted, but would still make dinner—probably baked ziti, a hearty kale soup, or buttered bow-tie pasta and spinach, with slices of fresh garlic. But she had to go on disability, following a year of being fatigued and confused, sometimes not fully conscious. There were several misdiagnoses, from a medical system that seemed cold and impersonal. I tried to help, even if it was just to rant with her, phones pressed between our cheeks and shoulders. I’d pace my house as she paced the perimeter of her bed. Being poked and prodded by needles left scars on the soft, thin skin in the crook of her arm. But that’s the spot needed for testing lipstick.
“Test that on the inside of your elbow, Mama,” she says to me in the store. (She calls me Mama, as is the custom in many Black and Hispanic families.) “You know you have yellow/orange undertones. That’s your true color.” She says something about how the color looks next to your veins. I don’t understand, but I take her word for it. My mom has always gotten compliments on her lipstick, and she credits it to this trick.
We leave the makeup section with the insides of our arms a smeared collage of reds, purples, and corals. We didn't get anything. Nothing was the right shade. We knew that would happen. We just wanted to play around and be together. It had happened 1000 times before. Never gets old.