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MOTHERS by Melanie Czerwinski

Liv’s mother called, but Liv’s mother always called. I imagined her eggshell sheets on what would soon be her deathbed, the waxy fake ferns in the corner of the nursing home room. I imagined her bloated face on her dead body, as waxy as the fake plants. Disgusting.

The aides were the ones who actually called. They would hold the phone up to her mother’s cheek, and she’d huff into the receiver about how she missed her daughter and how she should come visit. She was always out of breath. Liv would listen to the messages, then delete them without calling back. She’d go back to clacking away at her laptop keyboard, pronounced taps when she hit the spacebar, as if nothing had happened, as if her mother wasn’t on hospice.

Months ago, Liv’s mother was biding her time in the nursing home simply because she was overweight. Immobility due to obesity, the doctors told her. It pissed her off. I could understand some of her anger. Her father, a spindly man, spent his last days caring for her, wiping her ass, all of that. He had a heart attack and dropped dead at her bedside and she only bothered to call 911 after he was still for half an hour. She admitted to this, for some reason.

She had a custom-built wheelchair to accommodate her size, but I don’t think it got much use. Probably only to transfer to the toilet and shower. It wasn’t cheap, since it was outside of what insurance would cover, and Liv always regretted getting it. She should just squeeze into a normal one, she would say under her breath. She cursed her mother’s otherwise good health as those who she deemed more worthy of living passed away one by one. It just isn’t fair, she said, she doesn’t even try. I wondered if all those curses were what made the cancer suddenly sprout in her mother’s uterus. Liv nearly sounded happy when she received the news, and I swear I saw a devil’s smile pulling at her lips as she held the phone to her ear. She figuratively swatted Satan’s hands away from her mouth and forced a frown.

We drove to the nursing home. Things weren’t looking so good, according to the doctor. It was the beginning of March, but it was 76 degrees out with a slight breeze. Birds were tweeting, little frogs were peeping. But there were no bright flowers or green leaves, just empty branches and tan, dead grass. None of it added up.

My mother had a story for days like this, when people enthusiastically rolled down their windows and hung their arms out of their cars.

“When I was in high school, I was on the bus,” she would start, “and it was a totally normal day. There was this guy in front of us in a Cadillac with his arm out the window. He swerved too close to the other lane, and the car coming the opposite way took his arm clean off. I remember all the blood and his arm laying on the pavement.”

I never believed the story, and I had heard it since I was in middle school.

“Never put your arm out the window,” she always ended the story with, wagging her finger. Once I got my own car, I did it just to spite her.

I would have been more comfortable if Liv were preemptively mourning her mother. She had a quiet excitement around her. This was her first time visiting since her mother’s diagnosis; they only ever talked on the phone because of Liv’s compromised immune system. She was risking getting sick just so she could see her mother with tubes hooked up to her, her eyes barely opened.

I dropped Liv off and drove to a nearby Starbucks to wait. Indie pop was flowing from the hidden speakers. The inside smelled astringent, like it had just been cleaned top to bottom with assorted chemicals after a murder. I ordered a caramel macchiato and sat. The woman to my left was wearing a taffy pink sweater, the same color as my compact of birth control from high school. The vent behind her legs rattled. Caramel sauce snuck onto my upper lip when I tipped the cup to take a sip.

I scrolled through my phone, smiling at something on my feed then actively stopping myself. I was trying to blend in. I thought about Liv’s dying mother, and the smile easily went away, hiding, like thinking of unsightly things to kill an erection.

“If it goes any further, I would call the police,” the taffy woman said to one of her friends. Their conversation then shifted to whispers so I wouldn’t hear, but I strained my ears anyway. Something about an elementary school child divulging a story of abuse to a guidance counselor, but that could have been an unrelated story. Despite the temperature, the heat was still on, and the small of my back was starting to sweat. I was thankful when my phone rang.

“Come get me,” Liv said, sniffling. She was crying. I had no idea why she was crying. Was it because her mother hadn’t died yet?

I walked out of the Starbucks and paused when I got to the parking lot. The frogs had gotten louder as the sun began to set. There was a chill in the air now, and I briefly remembered scrolling past the weather report saying that temperatures were going to be dropping. I suddenly felt aware of my place in the world, an arresting feeling. My place was equally as important as Liv’s mother and the people who passed who she viewed as more important. I wanted to tell her about my epiphany, but as I plopped myself into the driver’s seat, I realized she wouldn’t want to hear it. Hearing that her mother had an important place in the world would infuriate her. I muted the radio and drove.

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