by Madeleine Seltzer
Artwork by: Daniel Workman
All of my mother’s hair fell out when she started her chemotherapy treatment. She finally tossed to sea her rule of “only up to the neck” in a pool. Her skin became the color of flour and her bald sphere matched. My father called her “The White Seal,” and we would all laugh with him, still distantly aware of the difficulty this held.#
“A special trip, for just me and you,” my mom whispered into my ear. After recovering from her double mastectomy at home for weeks, she finally felt allowed to find herself again.
I packed my yellow bikini, two pairs of fresh underwear, four mismatched socks, my light blue Levis, a thin white t-shirt, my denim jacket, and my Goose Bumps book, Creature Teacher. My mother and I took off in her navy blue Volvo for Palm Springs. After an hour of singing oldies on K EARTH 101.1, we arrived at The Esmerelda Hotel. I felt like a princess with my mother existing as my queen as we checked in, sliding the plastic key card into the slot of our room like one would do at an ATM. Inside, the wood looked glossed. It smelled of artificial citrus, and our white surroundings shone bright. I felt in heaven.#
My mother getting her hair wet felt like a special occasion to me. The kidney bean shaped pool in our backyard glittered, filled to the brim with a watered down blue. On hot summer days, I’d lounge beside the pool with a popsicle. The sticky juice would dribble down my chin as I sucked at the frozen treat, sliding down into the crease of my arm near my elbow. As soon as my body punched the top sheet of that water, I became clean and new. My mother never made the jump into the pool, no matter the scorching hot temperatures.
She only wore makeup to go out at night, so I knew the reason: her frizzy hair. When she did go in the water, my brother and I would wrap our bodies around her, just to ensure that it’s all real. When her hair would transform from sleek and smooth to unruly, it came to life and I felt closer to her. I recognized myself in her and I trusted her.#
Back in the hotel room my mom, motioning with her hand for me to hurry, said “Get in your bathing suit! Go change, we only have one full day here.” I tore my clothes off and slapped on the yellow bikini. I struggled to get through the head hole of my sundress. Once through, I straightened the sides and ran out of the bathroom, deciding to forget my shoes. My mother wore her blue and purple paisley two-piece underneath the clothes she’d arrived in. Always prepared. She reached into her straw summer bag packed with towels, several different sunscreens, a giant bottle of water with an expensive name, and a novel called The Red Tent, and pulled out a white tube of clear ointment.
“Can you put this on my back honey?” She asked, handing me the medicated moisturizer and turned around so I had access to her back. Looking over her shoulder at me, she said “Be gentle around my scars, okay?”
I unscrewed the top and the clear ointment oozed out like toothpaste. I dabbed a little bit of it on to my middle finger and spread the remainder onto the back of my hand. My fingers skated over her thin pink skin; raw like uncooked chicken. The cool clear moisture made me feel at ease. I poked the middle of her back like I often did. She had horrible posture, so it became our secret signal for her to stand up straight. Her spine lifted from the curve and her linen tunic dropped like a curtain.#
After walking down the maze of several different concrete paths, we found the glistening pool. The desert heat laid on our necks and fell down our backs. My mother’s head no longer shone bare and the short hair she did have became sweaty, the dark melting into her. We scanned the area for two prime chaise lounges, preferably near an umbrella, and definitely next to each other. The moment my mom spotted them, I had to sprint to keep up with her. She removed her shirt like someone unwrapping a present. Her skin looked shiny, her tummy tight, and her legs like two long straws. Since she got sick she repeatedly reapplied her sunscreen and reminded me to do the same. She propped one foot upon the lounge chair, making a ninety-degree angle with her leg while she rubbed sunscreen back and forth until the white disappeared.
“What the?” A woman whispered loudly to her daughter. The woman wore a red and white polka dotted one-piece with an overly floppy hat and had plump pink skin. Her daughter wore a blue bikini, similar to mine, with sunglasses too big for her face to match. “Well, that is just such a shame, Sheena.”
I remembered the kids at cotillion teasing me because my mother wore a wig or the other kids at school telling me that the word cancer also meant death. It felt strange to see a grown woman behaving so recklessly.
“Excuse me,” the polka-dotted woman said, poking my mother in the back, “Miss?” Mom turned around puzzled.
“What are your scars from?” The woman asked as the air became hotter. “The two lines on your back?” She clarified when neither of us responded, as if we weren’t answering because we didn’t know what she meant. “We were just curious,” she tried again, her daughter backing away into the shade of her umbrellas as if to escape.
Nobody moved, nobody spoke, and if felt as though the sky began lowering down on me as the ground raised.
My mother replied, “They had to clip my wings when I came down from heaven.” Always prepared. She snapped the sunscreen lid, closing it with a royal finality, and stood up. Then she walked elegantly to the edge of the pool, pausing there, and lifted her hands into the shape of an arrowhead. The sky took a step back then, as if to admire her, and I felt myself exhale the air I held inside myself like the last breath I’d ever get to take. The polka-dotted woman froze, her mouth agape in the shape of the “oh” she hadn’t stomached to say. My mother dived then, her form spreading at the bottom of the water where her scars magnified in wavy patterns. She emerged from below and whipped her bangs to the side. Her smile soaked into her face as she looked up at me, someone new.