HEARTBREAK CAN MAKE YOU FAMOUS
My mother died covered in tattoos. The name of the baby she miscarried when she was twenty-three; the date she read The Fountainhead and the date she got off drugs; a tiny rendition of the first painting she ever did: the face of a high school boyfriend who hung himself in his garage. As a child, I assumed that all mothers came with tattoos––stretch marks and tattoos.
I found her wrapped in the bed sheets of a beige Palmdale motel. By then, she had new marks on her arms––not left by ink. There were cigarette burns that, when you looked hard enough, resembled the faces of men; a connect-the-dots string of needle marks kissing the inside of her thighs; some cuts along her left wrist that resembled the Maori tribal tattoos they were not. I remember the tips of her fingers just barely touching the carpet, as if caressing it. She had been in bed for at least a week, but she looked elegant.
The night manager, a middle-aged Nigerian man named Osita, assumed all the peace and quiet coming from the second floor was because she was out of town. She would sometimes leave for weeks, sometimes months, at a time without notice; leaving rent in advance under his door. Otherwise, her room was a routine coming and going of loud music, Thai takeout, and expressionless men.
Osita was fond of my mother. The day they met, my mother told him that she liked the way his name sounded, the actual sound it made when it left her lips.
“Does it mean anything?” she asked.
“Osita di nma,” he said. “‘From today onwards it will be better.’”
My mother smiled and touched his arm. “Then it has to be,” she said.
“That we must be friends. Osita...it’s imperative.” She smiled, let go of his arm, and took her room key.
My mother would randomly take me aside to explain one of her tattoos. I felt like a secretary, taking down notes, dictation that chronicled who she was. I knew what I was doing was important; that someday I was going to need this information. How do you feel that way––able to imagine the future––at the age of seven?
“This one is for your brother, Tommy,” she said. “He was six months old, still living inside my belly, just like you used to.” She took my hand, rubbed it in a circle over her stomach like she was performing some sort of ritual. “One day, he disappeared though.”
“Why?” I asked.
“He knew that you were coming, and he wanted to make room for you.” She smiled and scooped me onto the couch beside her. “See, you lived right here too,” pointing to her stomach, “right where your brother did. So...in a way...it’s kind of like you knew him too.”
The day I found her, it was actually a night. Osita called my brother, Jack, first because my mother kept Jack’s first business card in her wallet. He hadn’t worked there for ten years, but his cell phone number was the same.
“You handle it. I don’t want anything to do with it,” he told me over the phone.
“It?" I didn't push it further than blurring whether or not I just asked a question or made a statement. I understood what Jack meant, and why it meant that. How do you want anything to do with a mother who could never see outside of herself long enough to be a mother to you? My mother named Jack Tommy after her dead high school boyfriend, Jack Begbo. It wasn’t that she loved Jack Begbo so much; rather, I think she just felt for him, identified with him. And she wanted to remember who she was then, what it felt like to be that lost; so she used her baby boy as a vehicle through which to remember herself. I can’t imagine any child who wouldn’t resent a mother for that.