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When I smell rubbing alcohol I am back with my mother, a child again. I’m nine, watching her soak cotton balls in the clear solution and wipe down every part of our car she had touched. Even with the windows open, the stench was overpowering, making my head hurt and my eyes water.
We were late for something, I’m sure. My mother was always late, always apologizing, always guilty. Her hands were cracked and dry from endless washing, her back ripped apart by her own nails, and she never seemed to smile when I was young except when she looked at me. She loved me. She was neurotic but she loved me.
The rubbing alcohol took the paint off the dashboard, and the gleaming white plastic showed through. The numbers on the preset radio stations were gone, never to be seen again. The whiteness of it looked wrong, a reminder that my beloved mother was not all there.
“Mom, why do you have to do this?”
“It’s contaminated, sweetie.”
And there was always that word: contaminated. I heard it every morning and every night of my childhood. It was the reason I couldn’t touch the shelves by the window. It was the reason my mom hadn’t done laundry in a year in a half. Sometimes it even prevented her from hugging me. She was so worried of some unknown toxin.
I don’t know how many years it took me to understand. I don’t fully understand it even now, even with all my knowledge of serotonin and re-uptake inhibitors. That was the part of her that she tried to protect me from and hide from the world, the contaminated part.
All I know for sure is that in my whole life I never wanted for love. My mother was capable of loving anyone and anything. When she was 13 she was a big sister to wards of the state and decided she wanted to be a social worker. She followed that dream through years of school, through the breakdown of her marriage, her family, and her own mind.
She wasn’t remarkably intellectual like the rest of her family, and she had problems that most of them did not, but she still found it in herself to be a mother to all the strangers with whom she came in contact. This was her job, and it was a job without glory or ambition but something she did wholeheartedly. She had something I did not: compassion.
Her looks somehow had always matched her personality, never assuming or attracting attention. My mother was a plain sort of pretty in her girlhood, with freckles and curly brown hair. She was slight then, so thin that years later I found that I couldn’t squeeze into her clothes. Her eyes had a sparkle of character that was a little lost in the rest of her face. If you looked into her hazel eyes, you knew at once that she meant business. She never really lost that beauty; instead it was buried under the wrinkles and sunspots of hard work and struggle. Yet it survived. I have always been in awe of her ability to survive.
I am 12 now, a preteen to the nth degree, willful and independent. The scent of rubbing alcohol is still present and fills our apartment. She has cups of it lying everywhere, and she is soaking her glasses and keys in it. She works in a hospital, and she is fighting a silent battle against disease single-handedly.
I have a migraine, and I am angry. I have learned how to swear. Worse still, I have learned how to turn my anger onto other people, to use my words like grenades and my tongue like a lash.
“Why the f*** do you have to do this, Mom?”
“You know why, Naomi.”
“What the hell is the therapy for, then? Does it help, like, at all? We’re late for dinner now.”
“Just tell Grandpa that there was traffic.”
“I’m not telling him sh**. Why don’t you lie to your parents for a change?”
“I’m sorry, Naomi. It’ll just be another ten minutes.”
And there it was again, an apology I didn’t want. And her look: eyes crinkled at the corners and mouth screwed up as if she was a young girl about to cry because of an unjust slap. I didn’t want her to be submissive, to say she was sorry. I wanted her to tell me to go jump off a cliff for being so mean to the one person who would sacrifice everything for me in a heartbeat. I hated her guilt. I hated her for crying over what a bad mother she thought she was.
I was old enough to know it wasn’t her fault, and yet I pushed her because I resented her weakness. She could never be as loud as I was, or as self-sufficient. She needed love so badly that she would simply press her lips together docilely when my grandfather ranted about her weight. I wanted her to tell him to f*** off. I wanted to tell him to f*** off myself for hurting the person I loved most. But then there I was, conflicted as ever, and I was hurting her too.
I am 18 and getting my first tattoo, something my mother never wanted me to do. As they swab my skin with alcohol, without meaning to I think of my mother. She is my constant, my hero, the one person who will be there forever. I have loved and hated her. I have cried on her shoulder and hurled things across the room at her, intentionally missing. She is the most remarkable person I have ever known, and I hope one day I can say that to her face.