It’s 2005 and I’m in New York City at Circle in the Square Theatre about to see my first Broadway show. Past the spacious lounge with modern recessed lights and expensive coats slipping off shoulders like water, mom’s hand draws me to her hip to find our assigned seats. Before we even reach the staircase, though, something churning in my stomach stops me in my tracks. And then next thing I know, I’m barreled over the velvet carpet, ready to hurl.
It splashes just outside the restroom entrance, napalming where patrons shuffle in and out; dregs slip to my chin; grunts of disgust billowing in the air like thick fog. I feel mom’s hand stroke the small of my back, then gently through my widow’s peak. Poor Bubbie, mom croons assuredly in my ear, I’m not leaving, don’t worry.
I will never forget the healing properties of that embrace, of feeling at once relieved and chastened. As a child, when nausea waxed my intestines, as though unspooling down a dead-end street, my fiercely attentive mom stood sentinel for however long it took to convalesce. Her love was a balmy oasis. She’d wipe the perspiration from my brow, and nourish me with ice chips and Yiddish lullabies, which is all to say: she always put her cub first.
Fifteen years later I’m alone in the backseat of an Uber. I lower the window, but the outside air, thick with dew, is almost too much. Winding along Lincoln Drive, I gaze out at the canopy of trees, the Schuylkill River dark brown as syrup. These sites are foreign now, as though I’m a tourist in my hometown of Philadelphia for the first time. Amidst the pain, I scroll through my phone, discovering one of the last texts my mom sent me.
“Do you remember being at a theater in New York and throwing up on the stairs? Well, I am on those stairs right now reliving that moment. I hope you’re having a wonderful day. I love you.”
“Is everything all right?” my Uber driver asks, breaking my reverie.
“My mom is going to die,” I reply after a long, trembling pause. The Uber driver leers at me through the rearview mirror, half-apologizes, says something to the effect of “well, life goes on” then shifts focus back to the road. The world is caving in. No one cares. I stifle back tears.
May 25, one day after George Floyd is murdered, I’m told by doctors that my mom’s supposedly minor brain surgery has become fatal. Yawning in another world, outside my hermetically sealed container of grief, a clarion call for racial justice is marshaled across the country. The nation has come undone. What I know to be true crumbles at my own doorstep. I feel like the oldest person alive.
When the Uber driver drops me off, my stepdad embraces me in the foyer sobbing; the astronomy of his face is flattened by grief. His best friend Rob must have noticed the bewildered expression on my face too because he asks if I understand next steps, if I’m able to relax and listen to him for a moment. There is the unremitting hum of the ceiling fan, which you don’t hear unless you listen for it, and then it’s there all the time.
I’m on my knees on the bathroom floor, seizing the porcelain bowl in my arms for some iota of solace. I retch and vomit a reddish-brown substance into the toilet. I imagine drowning in the Atlantic Ocean, salt collapsing my weary lungs. I imagine mom wiping dried vomit off my face, lifting me out of my salt-soaked body, laughing her full-throated laugh that she’s sad to go, immensely sad to go, but that she’s free now, she’s finally free.
Ezra writes in Philadelphia with Waldo, his beloved asparagus fern. A Pushcart nominee, his work has appeared in Philadelphia Stories, North of Oxford, Flash Fiction Magazine, among others. You can follow his writings on Twitter @SolwayEzra