Someone told me when I was a little kid that we don’t see ourselves when we think about ourselves, we see a big cartoon version instead. Ever since I started thinking about it, I have started to see myself as a deep sea diver instead. My eyes are big and magnified from my face mask but my mouth is covered. When confronted with the world and all of its unknowns, I have the same thought playing through my head: keep breathing, the most important thing is to regulate your breathing.
My Mom used to wear this outfit when she went out late at night, it was black and skin tight and she moved silently through the house when she had it on. She would leave without saying a word, and I wouldn’t hear the door close. When I woke up, she would be back, in her bed, her outfit on its hooks in her closet. I told my Kindergarten class that she was a superhero, and then (when my imagination got a little better) I pretended the suit to be a lot of other things until I settled on seeing her the same way I saw myself – clad in wetsuits, swimming underwater, trying to understand the world around us without saying anything.
My room was always sparse, is always sparse. A bed, a dresser, a side table, my closet with clothes, a computer from when I was ten onwards. The apartment is just as spare. You can float through it, you can touch anything, but none of it has any dust, everything is museum quality, silent, vacuum packed and clean. And I miss her. If you can accumulate enough things it’s like having her, like a video game and fetch quests.
For a long time underwater, I felt like she and I shared an oxygen tank. I felt like she would let me be everything to her for as long as she possibly could, and while I had air she danced and made funny faces and smiled and laughed – that tinny, underwater, bubbly laugh that sounds like glass rubbed with rubber gloves. That’s how I can remember her laugh. Everything else is receding because I can’t remember her as she really was, I can only remember the moving parts, like having a watch that has been taken apart and trying to put it together without knowing exactly how it looked.
Someone told me when I was a kid that I needed a father to know how to be a man, but I knew right away, without a mustachioed man with a wallet-shaped bulge in his back right pocket. That’s how I always saw fathers. Sometimes I would be drawn up in Mom’s arms and she would ask me if I had everything I needed, and I would tell her yes, of course, I have everything, we have everything, and I could feel her vertebrae too close together when she had me there in that hug. Mom was a cat, high strung, ready to pounce at all times. She only relaxed in the afternoon, on the couch, with sunlight streaming in. When I was small enough, I could sit on her stomach and she would have me read my books to her. She liked the series about kids who could become their favorite animals the best. Of course.
What’s it like now that she’s gone is the question I can’t answer, and it’s the only one that people want to ask, but they veil it in a lot of other questions about how I’m getting along and if I need anything but I was emancipated years ago and I still have a bank account that has a number that grows somehow. I never needed Mom like other people need their parents. I always needed her to be exactly who she was and she always wanted to be everything but, and we met in the middle, sharing our life support with one another, and I never asked where it came from and maybe I should have – but I didn’t. I never asked what she did at night or in the day time because she had different, more important things to tell me.
She liked to tell me about what she’d been reading, about language and the invention of the naming of things, she would spend my days in school going down the rabbit’s hole of etymology, explaining where everything comes from and eventually derailing into existentialist dogma about inherent lack of meaning.
It was her who told me about the cartoon version of ourselves, and I asked if she saw anything other than herself as a cartoon. She said she saw an emoticon, usually, the one that’s a colon and a capital “I” and I told her it was the saddest thing I’d ever heard. She said it was only now that I was older and I started smiling for other things than seeing her eyes again during games of peek-a-boo, and I told her she should be an end parentheses now, all the time, seeing me grown up and well-adjusted, just like she would want her son to be.
It all rained down not long after that conversation between the two of us. The arrests, the seizure of property, the proof and the cameras, the interviews and the secrets that spilled out of her like drunks peeling peanuts in a bar. I never answered any questions, I hardly ever opened the door to the world outside. Because the only suit I ever want to wear is my wetsuit, and I only ever feel like I’m deep sea diving, and it’s getting dangerous, because I don’t feel like I have much left in my oxygen tank, I can’t go on just taking care of myself, and when I start to wonder what I should say to someone else I can only think of the air I’d lose and how every breath is precious. Regulate your breathing, just try and regulate your breathing.