I took a class in ad writing at Pratt Institute when I was twenty-four. I lasted one day. One of my classmates came in on the first day with storyboards for a commercial for a truck. The teacher, a dignified man in a stylish, floral-patterned shirt, asked the student whether they could talk during the break. The teacher offered the student a mint, and ate one himself, then tried to explain that he taught print-ad writing. The truck-commercial student would not hear it. He was so enthusiastic about his work that the teacher gave up and let him present his storyboards. I would have come back, but I was stumped by our first assignment: Write ad copy for shredded wheat.
I bring this up because it was my intention throughout my twenties to have a real job and to write fiction on the side. I was accepted to the MFA program at Syracuse, and I deferred a year and then didn’t go, because I thought getting an MFA was dishonorable. I wanted to be like William Gaddis. I wanted to work, drink, wear normal clothes, pay my bills, and write.
I had a science-fiction novel in mind. I had a page written. All I can remember about it now was the word “swayback.” The swaybacks were a lower class. I had one page, and I was constantly refining the sentences. I called it “my sci-fi thing.” I emailed it to editors and friends. If someone asked me what I was doing, I’d reply: “Writing my sci-fi thing.” Seven years passed in this way. I was thirty-one years old when I recognized that it wasn’t working out.
My mother lived in a four-story stucco apartment building on Alki Beach in Seattle. It was built on a sinkhole, and so it had never been bought up by developers or renovated. It was right on the beach, overlooking Puget Sound, and my mother justified the high rent of the decrepit, embarrassing building by the view. “My wind element is high, Amie. I need to be near the sea.”
When my mom picked me up at the airport from my LaGuardia flight, she was wearing a designer coat she got on eBay. It was too tight, and it made her look like she was a hunchback. She hadn’t been washing her hair, and she had a pronounced bald spot. It was Thanksgiving, in 2009.
She had made plans. We were going to have turkey dinner with her boss, but first she insisted that we drop off my bags. We opened the door to her apartment; her roommate, whom I will call Jesse, and two of my mom’s friends, Pat Armstrong and Patience Paradox, were getting high in the living room. It was a tiny two-bedroom, and I was meant to sleep in the living room. The living room was very cluttered. There was hand-me-down JCPenney furniture, particleboard cupboards, many bowls full of change and pharmaceutical-company giveaways, and photos of Tibetan gurus tilted against every lamp, lying on every dust-covered surface. There was a bad smell. My mom said, “Don’t worry. It’s just the dishwasher. It backs up into the sink.”
At Thanksgiving dinner, one of my mother’s boss’s guests asked me what I did for a living. I said, “I’m a writer.”
For the next month or so, my mother woke up early to go to Swedish Medical Center, where she worked as a nurse. I woke up later, around nine. Jesse rarely came out of his bedroom. He’d had a stroke three years earlier and, understandably, he was having a difficult time adjusting to my mattress in his living room. I was in his space. He paid rent; I didn’t. But he felt uneasy confronting my mother about it. He was looking for a new apartment. In the meantime, he stayed in his room. He had a microwave in there. He peed into a gallon jug. The only time I saw him, really, was when he needed to use the bathroom.
I tried to clean. I began with the articles arranged on top of the kitchen cupboard. When I asked my mom if she was attached to the stuffed panda bear and red Chinese fan that formed the centerpiece, she said, “Oh, I didn’t realize that was up there.” I took everything down. One cardboard box read: jesse’s do not touch. I had moved it. It was on the counter. Right at that moment, Jesse walked out of his bedroom.
After that, things with Jesse went sour. He started making remarks. I remember his sarcasm was like the stuff on sitcoms, but I knew he was seriously angry. I would wonder why, and then I would remember: I was sleeping on the floor of his living room. My memories of Jesse’s last stand are dim. I just remember him with a cane, standing in the doorway. The cane was waving in the air. I have never seen a person more enraged. He found a new place a week later. I helped him move. He had a bed that a contractor friend had built for him. His friend was not a very good builder. The bed was high, and its legs were made of two-by-fours. Carrying it out, I snapped one of the legs. I never told Jesse about it.
A few months later my mother decided she needed oral surgery. “If I have it done in India, it’s a quarter the cost, Amie,” she said. Besides, she explained, her dentist in Seattle was rude, and his work was cheap. “His cap broke two days after he put it in.” My mother persuaded me to come with her.
And so we were stranded at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal. We had bought one-way tickets from Seattle to Kathmandu, and one-way tickets from Delhi to Seattle. The dentist was between the two places. My mother was nervous. She kept asking how we’d get from Nepal to the dentist. I said, “Mom. They have buses.”
In Kathmandu, my mother had problems with her debit card, and I had no money. “The money will be here any day,” my mother said. “I’m waiting for the cash to land.” I said, “While we’re waiting we can attend the drupchens.”
This drupchen is a ten-day ceremony. At the end of each year, the monks at the monastery hold four. The sessions continue around the clock; we attended the daylight sessions — from before dawn until five p.m. It was during this time that I started taking notes.
Three weeks went by. I wrote during the drupchen sessions. I took notes during meals. I took notes when I argued with my mother. My mother is observant, and soon she began to go quiet whenever the notebook came out.
Here is the story of my mother’s life: It always seems preposterous and hopeless, and then it works out exactly like she says it will. The money came, and she went to Jalandhar, Punjab, in India, by plane. Three weeks later, I followed her. She had the best room at the best hotel in town. It was Western-style and not expensive by American standards. She had lost twenty pounds because for three weeks her teeth and gums had hurt so badly she didn’t eat. She was wearing new clothes. It had all been paid for, as she’d said it would be, by a trust her mother had left for her, and then — maybe I should not say this — it had been paid for a second time by her insurance. She looked pretty. She was happy. To be honest, it made me uneasy.
When we got back to Seattle I started writing on a green IBM Selectric that I bought on Craigslist. I had around a hundred pages about a drummer I’d met in a bar and fallen in love with. I struggled. It was very, very important to me that readers understand this love was real. I’d make a character named Hilary into a character named Viola. I’d go from first person to third. When I couldn’t work I repainted the walls of my mother’s apartment. The first color I chose for her living room was pink. Then I redid it in white. I threw away all my mom’s furniture. I put it in the dumpster. I took her room, overlooking the water, and she moved into Jesse’s, which still smelled like pee. At night, when she came home from work, she cooked dinner. Then we would eat in front of her large-screen Mac and stream a movie.
One day I was sitting alone in the apartment. I noticed my mom’s $600 hand-thrown clay tea bowl. She’d bought it from the Japanese department store downtown. After buying one, she’d gone in and special-ordered a second. The second had been made specifically for her. The artist in Japan was called, things were arranged, and when the bowl came in, they called my mom to tell her and — she didn’t answer. She didn’t have the money.
I saw it as a story. I wrote it on my typewriter in an afternoon. For the first time I recognized my mother for what she is: the writer’s wish-fulfilling jewel. I think that was four years ago. Since then I’ve written probably ten stories about my mother. I’m still working on the thing about the drummer. It’s mostly about my mom.