We went away for her birthday – although by the time we were actually going, I had forgotten what had made me want to take her. An eastern city she hoped would be filled with eastern promise. For me, another attempt to win a mother’s love, and fail somehow, and only then realise that I had been trying. Even in the airport, she merely followed, like a dog. Her mantra for the trip was that she didn’t want to have to think, which left me in the unfortunate position of having to think for two – not the easiest way to relax. I fought through the lines, the directions, the checkpoints – she floated in my wake, mind filled with the words of dead men whom she felt akin to. They would have dismissed her in a moment as a simple woman – but then that is the beauty of feeling a connection with the dead, you can assume they would have felt it too.
It was colder than we were expecting. We jumped on the last metro from the airport – running and giggling in heady expectation and nerves, knowing we were getting closer to our destination, feeling in our hearts that we were merely receding further from home, the string that attaches us across the world to love and security growing thin, disappearing into the darkness. The metro slid out, the carriage brightly lit, lots of men and one other woman, eyes and subdued foreign talk – they knew we were strangers – we felt unwelcome, but didn’t acknowledge it. We were too loud, defiant, but our stances turned inward, enclosed. The traces of western influence were everywhere, marring our tourist desire for exquisite orientalism. I was anxious for it to be what she had expected. A couple kissed greedily in the carriage ahead, a middle aged man looked on with disapproving jealousy. An elderly couple, large-nosed and dark-skinned, sat together without saying a word – when they got off, he led, she followed. My mother shouted out that we were at our stop. In a panic we jumped off, and it was the wrong stop, as I had guessed. A man opened the doors for us, and we got back on, but only just. I felt annoyed.
We got a taxi from our stop. As I conversed energetically, trying to make him feel as though we were friends, as though his comments weren’t falling on tired, desperate ears, she stayed quiet, refusing to engage, ‘not thinking’. I had to chat with extra vigour to allow for her. I had to remember that this was her trip. He tricked us when we got out, charged extra, pretending we hadn’t given him enough. We didn’t realise until the next morning in our cramped room that looked nothing like the ones on the website. She woke me with the news, said she’d known something wasn’t quite right. We lay in silence, and I fought the despair. I couldn’t help but be angry – I didn’t understand why anyone dwelled on bad things, but she did. She liked to. It was one of our many differences. Irreparable differences. But it had to be put aside, she hadn’t been thinking, and this was her trip.
We had two full days. By the second, my mother and I had grown sick of one another. I had grown sick of thinking for two, and she had grown sick of being told what to do. We chatted, miscommunicating, saying things that didn’t suit the other. Her quoting, me joking, both suffering. She read as I told an anecdote, and I told her it was rude. She told me I was very bossy, as we sat in the palace of the sultans and drank coffee. We were lost to one another, lost on the way. My heart cried out in agony, wondering how one could lose one’s mother. How one could dislike one’s mother, and want to love her so much as well. We walked home in silence. She went to bed as I cried in the shower. I thought my agony would fill the entire city, the city of our unhappiness. The enormous river that ran through it was the distance between us. I didn’t understand when it had grown, this void, or why, but now we looked at one another across it, and I screamed out to her, but she couldn’t hear me. She turned away and read a book by the dead.
This was our last night, and she refused to get up. She stood, tiny body, enormous presence to one who has been her child, and told me I was difficult to be on holiday with, on her holiday, and packed her case for the morning. She returned to bed, and I sat on mine, staring. My body was on fire and she couldn’t see it. My mother, the child. The petulant bitch. How had this happened? When I was small she had read me all of the Little Women books by Louisa M. Alcott. On Christmas Eve, she would climb into my bed and tell me exactly how the next day would go, unfolding each separate hour like a chocolate from a shiny, crinkly wrapper. Now we didn’t like each other, and I wanted to cry. I had lost my mother.
I told her to come out, I couldn’t bare the idea of having failed so completely. To have to acknowledge our loss. So we went. We had a meal with a chatty waiter, and went to a traditional show designed for tourists, overpriced. We giggled at how appalling it was, and at the ignorance of the Americans sitting beside us, with their eternal positivity, saying to one another ‘well, it was an experience!’. We mocked, and I secretly envied the simplicity of it, and we went home. The pain lingered, but not too much – we both counted down the hours until we got home, got to others who understood us better. I saw her writing in her journal on the plane. She said ‘looking forward to getting home – to house, kids, dog, guinea pigs, lover’. It made me wish the plane could go a little faster.
When we got home, people asked us about it, and we told them how great it was, how beautiful the buildings were, the weather, the food. We didn’t mention that we had lost each other, out there in the east, and that we could never find one another again. We didn’t mention that. Now we have coffees, and talk about things going on. We pretend that the river that divides the city is far away, and that we are no longer standing on the banks, as I scream out, and she turns away to read the books of dead men.