How Did We End Up Back Here?
Mom was always glowing, be it from the day’s sun, the fluorescent lights of the prison visiting ward, the flickering of the lighter flame, or the police lights shooting around her like dying stars. On this night, it was the glow from the porch light.
I was visiting from college for the weekend, back in the Mojave for the millionth time. The living room was dim and I was lying on the plum-colored couch watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to distract myself from being back in the desert. As I started to lose myself in the surrealism of the film, I heard a knock at the door. Jarred by the sound, I fought the urge to fold into myself. There it was again. A knock, more like a tapping, against the edge of the old screen door.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
My chest went tight like it was filling up with water. Nothing good ever came from the tap, tap, tap. I forced myself toward the sound. Two figures stood beyond the screen. They blurred into the night behind them, and I squinted trying to make out their faces. The glare of the badges on their chests lit my limbs on fire.
My hands, pale and trembling, reached for the door. It creaked when I opened it, but I could only hear the ringing in my ears. Watching the shadows of moths move across their stiff faces, I opened my mouth to speak, but no words came.
“Is Tammy Easton home?” one of them asked.
I could see his lips moving but the words sounded foreign, from another country, another planet. I don’t know how long I stood there voiceless, staring at his flapping mouth, but it felt like all of eternity.
The cops have been coming to the door for Mom in one way or another since I was three years old. The first time, they bust the door off its hinges in a raid and ripped her from the bed where I was sleeping beside her. The memory flashed through my mind like a shock of lightning—Mom’s nicotine-stained fingertips reaching for me as the cops carried me away, the men with guns trying to restrain her, the way her eyes looked wild and lost, but not scared.
The cop at the door pulled me out of the past.
“Miss, is Tammy Easton home?” His lips were chapped and the slivers of dried skin peeled and flaked along the edges of his mouth.
The words were beginning to form in my mind. All the blood left my body, leaving me lifeless like a bag of bones.
“Miss, we need to speak with her. Is she home?”
Dad came out from the kitchen and saw the cops through the crack in the screen.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
I disappeared behind Dad, burying my face into the small of his back. He smelled like warm laundry and defeat.
“Sir, is Tammy Easton home?”
I felt the thunder of fear run through him when he let out a sigh. Muffled tears rushed out of me and soaked the back of his shirt. He reached his hand around to me crumbling behind him. Dad cleared his throat. I listened as he forced down a hard gulp. I couldn’t see his face, but I knew he was clenching his jaw. I was clenching mine, too, and I couldn’t swallow. My mouth felt as if it had been pumped full of sand.
Mom emerged from the hallway. I could see the blood-colored sweater covering her fleeting form and the flowing darkness of her hair, but it was as if I were peering through stained glass. She wedged herself between us—Dad and me—and the uniforms at the door.
“I’m Tammy. What’s up?” she said with her bottomless calm.
“Mrs. Easton, we’re going to need you to come with us.”
Mom opened the screen door wider. She began to ask why, but the cop with the chapped lips interrupted her with his dry, little mouth.
“You’re under arrest for …”
He rattled on, but again I couldn’t understand a word he was saying.
“No, please! You can’t take her. You can’t take her. You can’t take her,” I said over and over. My voice sounded strange in my ears like it belonged to someone else.
“It’s okay,” she said. “They can’t keep me.” Mom stepped over the threshold of our home into the unknown.
I reached for her, but it was too late. They were already tightening the handcuffs around her tiny wrists. Dad placed the palms of his sweating hands on my shoulders and I felt him shuddering. Or maybe it was me. Maybe it was both of us. I felt Dad rest his heavy head on top of mine. I went weightless in his arms as if the ground was being pulled out from under me. Listening to Mom’s footsteps fade away from us, I couldn’t control my sobbing.
“Are you guys happy now?” Dad shouted to the backs of the cops.
They didn’t turn around, but Mom did.
“It’s going to be okay,” she said, looking back over her shoulder. Her face was bathed in the copper glow of the porch light; she looked like a fading flame. “I love you infinity times the universe!” she shouted, but her voice trailed away as if she were falling down a deep well. Or maybe I was the one falling.
I ran after her, but the patrol car door slammed shut and she was lost behind the glowing red window pane. My empty hands ached. I watched the cops pull away and the red taillights slink off into the night. Wilting onto the asphalt, I felt the sunless heat on my palms. I could hear Dad’s hurried stride move toward me and his worried voice in the wind, and then everything went black.
Mom was sentenced to a year in jail, and at first, I refused to visit her. It had been over a decade since her last arrest and I thought I was done worrying about visiting hours and placing sloppy red X’s on the calendar until the next time I could see her again. I thought I was done having to readjust to life without her.
But Mom missed everything.
She missed my college graduation—I didn’t bother going to the ceremony because what was the point? Without Mom, everything seemed meaningless. Plus, what was I celebrating anyway? The crippling debt I had accrued? Yeah, let’s throw a damn party.
She missed my move to Los Angeles—Dad came down and brought me Mom’s couch, the plum-colored one I had been lying on when she was arrested. He said he didn’t need it, and if Mom wanted it then she shouldn’t have gotten herself thrown in jail again.
And she missed my first day working at Atlantic Records—I wanted to show her the fancy keycard I got with my picture on it and the massive stack of CDs they sent me home with, including some of my favorite Led Zeppelin albums. I would’ve given just about anything to rock out with her to “Black Dog” that day.
Instead, I lied to my colleagues and the new friends I’d made at work about where I came from and the world I’d finally escaped, the world Mom was still part of. They asked where I grew up, and I told them out in the desert near where the Coachella music festival was held every year. Coachella wasn’t even in the Mojave, but they didn’t have to know that.
My roommate would spend the weekends hanging out with her mom at their beach condo. I’d tag along sometimes pretending that sipping mimosas on the deck and spending thirty bucks on a salad at the seafront steakhouse was a normal thing for me to do, too. When questions about my family would surface I’d try to spin things in a way that sounded appealing, like my Dad didn’t change tires for a living and my Mom hadn’t spent the better part of her life—and mine—in prison.
“What does your father do?”
“Dad’s big passion is classic cars, so he spends most of his time with a wrench in his hand.”
“What about your mom?”
“She likes helping people. She spends a lot of time at the jail talking with women prisoners.”
“Oh, that’s nice of her,” they’d say.
“Yeah, she has a big heart.”
At least that part was true.
Working at Atlantic felt like a dream. Red carpet events with the musicians whose pictures I had ripped out of Rolling Stone and taped to my wall when I was in high school, after-parties on the Sunset Strip that I used to fantasize about, my name on the guest list at the Chateau Marmont, and the parties in the hills that no one was supposed to know about. I’d escaped the suffocating grip of the Mojave, and for the first time, I felt as if I was where I belonged.
Building a life in Los Angeles made it easier to return to the desert every other month to visit Dad. I knew I had a way out, so I could prepare myself to face the heat and desolation and the overarching anomie that comes with the discouraging landscape. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the rapid decline of my father.
He’d picked up drinking with the guys from the tire shop and quickly fell into swigging tequila alone in his old recliner chair. He’d pour the clear, burning liquid into a glass and I’d watch it disappear past the heavy lump in his throat. With most of Mom’s stuff gone and all of Mom gone, the house felt as if no one lived there.
I started to come up more on weekends to check on Dad, and on Sundays we would watch football together. I picked up drinking to feel closer to him. At least that was part of the reason. Mostly, I was trying to obliterate the part of me that was broken, to numb the raging despair of losing Mom again. Dad would often start our day of drinking at nine in the morning. I’d laugh when Dad talked back to the refs, calling them cocksuckers and saying that they didn’t know shit. He’d raise his fists to the television as if he were going to challenge it to a fight.
Sometimes Dad would come down to visit me in Los Angeles. We’d watch the game from a couple of barstools and put back too many tequila shots. I wouldn’t remember which team won, and Dad would drive the two hours back to the desert drunk as hell. He said he’d just close one eye if he started seeing double.
I’d go to work hungover or still drunk from the night before, but no one would notice. Or maybe they did but didn’t care because most people drank alcohol like it was water anyway. I’d slump down to the middle of my spine and fall asleep in my orange desk chair.
One day, I woke to the sound of the phone ringing.
“Publicity, this is Jessy,” I answered in an I-wasn’t-just-sleeping tone.
It was Grandma Fields—Mom’s mom. She said she was sorry to call me at work, but she’d made an appointment for me to see Mom. I let out a long sigh. Grandma said Mom kept asking for me so I needed to stop being so selfish.
“She’s your mother,” she said. “She loves you.”
“Is this what love looks like?” I said.
Grandma scoffed, all phlegm and rasp. Then she said, “She’s at West Valley. Don’t be late or they won’t let you in.”
West Valley was the worst place of all. It was the first place that separated me from her after the raid. The place where Mom drowned in an oversized jumpsuit behind bulletproof glass. The place where I was no longer a daughter, but a visitor.
At three years old, all I could see out the window of Dad’s truck was a smog-filled sky. “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses blared over the stereo. The speaker on my side of the truck had blown out and now made a crackling sound. The truck smelled like tires and motor oil. It smelled like Dad.
A stream of light poured in through the windshield streaked with dust and bird shit. I looked up at Dad. He was squinting and I watched the fluttery shadows on his cheekbones dance with each blink. Dad had one hand on the steering wheel, and the other lay palm up in my lap. I had ahold of his calloused fingers.
I watched the top of a fence lined with barbed wire scroll by as we drove into the parking lot of the jail. I slid across the cracked leather seats when Dad took the corner. Old Gatorade bottles rolled around in the footwell under my dangling feet.
Dad had me in a turquoise top with blush-colored pants with black bows at the ankles. My white strappy sandals were scuffed and one of the straps was barely hanging on by a thread. That morning Dad couldn’t find the brush, so he ran the tips of his cracked fingers through my tangled strands, which only made it worse.
Dad parked the truck and carried me up to the sign-in window—a small kiosk that could only hold one or two guards. I held onto Dad’s shirt and he gave the cop his driver’s license. The cop looked it over and handed Dad a card with the unit number of where Mom was held.
We waited at a metal picnic table. It was hot and tiny beads of sweat collected on the surface of Dad’s slender arms. The flies were relentless. They buzzed around our heads as if we had a layer of manure on our faces.
The guard finally called us to put our stuff through the metal detector. Dad was only allowed to bring a key ring with one or two keys on it. He threw it in the plastic tray along with the card the cop had given him. Dad sighed and moved slowly across the pavement as if his feet were made of lead. The guard had Dad spread his arms and legs.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
He felt under Dad’s arms and around his pant legs. Cleared. Dad picked up his belongings from the tray and shoved them into the pockets of his faded jeans.
The guards led us down the long, empty hallway to the correct unit number. There was a button on the wall on the left side. Dad pressed it. After a long moment, a guard came over the speaker and said, “Can I help you?”
Dad leaned into the little metal speaker in the wall and gave him Mom’s name. We waited in a room that was shrouded in melancholy, crowded with metal stools in front of tiny metal cubicles, each divided by a partition to give the visitors and inmates the illusion of privacy. The walls were dull yellow and tacky with layers of old paint. A metal phone hung in each booth. A sheet of bulletproof glass separated us from them, visitor from inmate, mom from daughter. It smelled like a high school gym, like the rubber of old shoes and basketballs laden with sweat.
Buzz. I jumped in Dad’s arms at the deafening sound. Clack. The doors unlocked and inmates filed in. Our heads bobbed in search of Mom. My heart was pounding. So was Dad’s. I could feel the heavy thumping radiate from his chest.
“There she is,” he said, pointing to her when she came into view.
She was wearing a bright orange jumpsuit that was three sizes too big. Her fingers peeked out of the sleeves and her nails were chewed down to brittle silver moons. Under the fluorescent lights, her once-wild eyes looked tamed.
Mom took a seat at the open stool in front of us and picked up the phone. Her eyes went back and forth from Dad to me like a pinball. I wiggled in Dad’s lap and placed my arms on the metal counter. It felt cold against my skin. Dad handed me the phone.
“Mommy!” I tried to hold the big, awkward phone up to my ear.
“How’s my little girl?” Her voice sounded muffled through the receiver and she fidgeted with the metal phone cord.
I exploded with excitement like a shaken-up soda can.
“Are you coming home?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Not for a while,” she said.
“Because I did something bad and I’m being punished for it.” Her eyes went damp and Dad noticed Mom’s face fall. He was always trying to protect her, especially from herself.
“Hey, sweetie, let me talk to your mother,” he said, reaching for the handset.
Dad put the phone up to his ear and told Mom how much he missed her and asked how she was holding up. His voice was low and sturdy like the rumble of a truck engine. I watched Mom’s mouth move but I couldn’t make out the words.
We were only allowed a twenty-minute visit and I stared at Mom the whole time. When the visit was up the guards would cut the line without warning. Dad looked down at his watch a hundred times because he wanted us to have time to say our I love yous unhurried.
“Say goodbye to your Mom,” Dad said, placing the receiver to my ear.
I grabbed the phone with both hands. “Bye-bye Mommy, I love you.”
Her eyes glistened. “I love you too, infinity times the universe.”
Dad told me to hang up but I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. I held the phone to my ear hoping Mom wouldn’t hang up. She said she was sorry and told me she loved me more than anything in the—click.
Silence rushed in.
Her mouth was moving but I couldn’t hear a thing. Just dead air. With tears rolling off her cheekbones, she put her hand up to the glass. I dropped the phone and it slammed against the metal surface of the cubicle. I put my palm up to hers.
I screamed as she walked away but she couldn’t hear me. She turned back before she reached the door, but I could barely make out her face through the cloudy film of tears.
When I was three, I didn’t understand why I had to be apart from her. But now, I knew it was because she was a meth addict. Because she was a criminal. Because our family was never enough for her. Because I was never enough.
Despite being steeped in resentment, I made the slow travail back to the place I’d fought so hard to get out of—for her—to scoop up her burdens onto my back. I’ve always thought I was stronger and more equipped to bear them than she was. I thought maybe if I carried some of the load, she’d have the strength to change, to find her way out. But she didn’t.
I pulled into the parking lot of West Valley and looked out the window at the barbed wire that looked like crooked teeth. I flinched at the thought of getting out of the car. It was Mom’s car, an old Pontiac Grand Prix, blinding red and fast as hell. I wanted to crash it into a brick wall at a hundred miles an hour and shatter the windshield with my bones, but I worried about what Dad would do without me.
I wished he could’ve been there riding shotgun next to me. I wished he could’ve been there to give Mom’s name to the guard behind the metal speaker. I wished I could’ve gotten lost in his giant hand as he led me down the long fluorescent hallways. But I wasn’t three anymore, and wishing never did me any good anyway.
I closed my eyes and laid my head back against the seat. I felt nauseous in the dry heat and the stream of sun that streaked through the window burned at the edges of my eyelids. Slamming my hands down on the steering wheel, I bruised the heel of my palms. Anger roared through my body in great bursts, but it was sympathy that pulled me out of the car.
Even worse than facing the endless buzzing, the metal detectors, the guarded doors, and the eternal waiting was the thought of Mom sitting by the phone only to find out that I didn’t show. I couldn’t let myself abandon her like that.
I waited at the metal picnic table, feeling sorry for myself while a swarm of flies bit at my ankles. I was like a well-trained animal, forever waiting for the sound of the buzzer. Folding my arms across the table, I laid my head into the crook of my elbow. The skin of my forehead felt as if it had fused with the dampness of my arm and it made a sticky smacking sound when I lifted my head.
I stumbled through the metal detector and gave the cop my wrist to stamp with the invisible ink. I went in, down the hallway to the metal speaker, and into the tiny room lined with sad metal cubicles and heavy phones. The air smelled like Styrofoam and the steam of microwavable soup and I tried to take long, deep breaths to keep myself from falling apart.
The guards opened the door and there she was, pretty as ever. She looked shiny and new and well-rested as if she’d been on vacation. Mom smiled and brought the phone up to her ear. I stared at the soft curls that fell across her shoulders like a black cloud. She looked at me and I saw guilt in her misty dark eyes and I realized my own were raw and burning. She tapped on the glass, waiting for me to pick up the receiver on the other side.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
The sound sent a current through my marrow. I cringed and picked up the phone. It smelled like morning breath. I wanted to scream at her and slam the receiver against the glass, but all I could force out was, “How did we end up back here?”
We because I refused to believe that she existed separate from me. Her dreams were my dreams—not that she’d ever dare let herself want something outside of the lifeless sand of California. Her fights were my fights. As much as I yearned for peace and stability, it was her whom I fought for. And fighting for her meant fighting for anarchy. I’d hoped the fight would bring her back to me, but it only brought the dissolution of our home, our family, our bond, and worst of all, my identity.
I was at war with myself, trying to be everything at once—a compulsive caretaker to two people who were supposed to be taking care of me; a daughter in the biological sense but emotionally left with a void the size of Jupiter; an adult who longed for independence but couldn’t stop grasping for the childhood I was robbed of.
What do you do when everything you are is at odds with itself?
I couldn’t tell where Mom ended and I began. I was disappearing under her unrelenting presence. She was like the evergreen vines of English ivy encircling a tree, taking everything from me until there was nothing left. Until only a weak, brittle stump remained.
Ill-starred from the beginning, maybe I should’ve cut myself free a long time ago. But I didn’t know how to exist without her. I was addicted to her like she was addicted to the drugs. She was addicted to the chaos that comes with being a criminal and I was addicted to the chaos that was her.
As we sat with a pane of bulletproof glass between us, Mom never answered my question. We held the greasy, fingerprint-covered phones up to our ears and inhaled the silence. What was I waiting to hear? Was I hoping she’d sputter out apologies in the weighted air? Did I want the grand I love yous and her empty promises to change? I’d heard it all before and it hadn’t done a thing for either of us.
The guard cut the line and Mom put her hand up to the glass in a way that felt all too familiar. I hesitated and she tapped the glass with her nails that were chipped and painted a bright, cheerful pink that clashed with the tone of the moment, the tone of our life.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
What I wanted was to feel like a daughter.
I wanted to have my mother sit on my bed and listen as I told her about the things that scared me about living off Hollywood Boulevard, and the things that didn’t. I wanted her to take me to coffee at one of those overpriced cafes in Los Feliz and ask me about the things that kept me up at night. I wanted to sit with her over a long brunch on Melrose and talk about nothing and everything until the servers asked us to leave so they could dress the tables for the dinner crowd. I wanted to browse records off Sunset Boulevard and tell her about the singer with the long hair I was trying not to fall in love with. And a thousand more subtle and mundane things that girls with absent mothers need to talk about.
I wanted all the trivial, little things that make up the life we should’ve had.
Mom tapped on the glass again and I brought my hand up to hers because what else was left to do but settle for the tap, tap, tap.
Jessy Easton was raised in the Mojave Desert of California and now lives in North Carolina. In 2022, Good River Review nominated her story “The Things We Leave Out” to be included in the nonfiction category of The Best of the Net Anthology. Her writing has been published in Beacon Quarterly, Entropy Magazine, and Good River Review.