The kids and I pulled up to the bus stop by Macrina Bakery on Queen Anne Hill, expecting to see Mom sitting there waiting, a smile ready. Instead, she was talking – if you could call it that – to the smartly dressed woman sharing the bus shelter with her. The woman was wearing crisp dress pants and a perfectly ironed oxford. Her hair fell in one clean line along her jaw. She was dressed to deliver a masterful closing argument or rousing speech. Next to her, Mom looked like she’d just rolled out of bed. From what I could see of her clothes and hair, she seemed to have been caught in the rainstorm that had hit with shocking force an hour before. Her hair was stringy and pulled into a sloppy ponytail. Her clothes were splotchy with moisture. In some kind of reversal of the divide that should exist between these two women, they were barely six inches apart. Mom was staring right at her and I got the distinct impression she was not being kind.
“Oh, no,” I said, to the quiet of the car.
When Mom saw us she walked quickly out of the shelter, threw something in the trash with force, as if to punctuate her statement, and yelled back at the woman. Then she opened the door, and turned to lob one last bomb. “You can go to hell!”
Mom turned back to the car and plopped down in the seat.
“Hi Mom.” I said, as calmly as I could. “You okay?”
Her jaw was rigid, her eyes hard. She stared out the windshield as she spoke. “She stole my glasses, and that’s my briefcase, and yeah, if you can call standing next to the woman who stole your house okay, well…” A feeling of dread closed in on me. I hadn’t seen her like this in almost a decade. For some reason the only thing I could think to do was to apologize to the woman she had just assaulted.
I looked at the woman in the shelter, trying to catch her eye, to mouth “I’m sorry.” But she looked everywhere but at us. And then I lost my mind. I rolled down the window and spoke to the woman as if Mom wasn’t there. Somewhere in the back of my head I guess I thought, Mom’s been so normal lately. She won’t mind.
“I’m sorry; she can’t help herself.” I said, out the window. I didn’t have the chance to see if she acknowledged me because a second later Mom pushed the passenger door open forcefully and heaved herself out of the seat.
“You know, she told me that you could shove it up my ass!” she yelled, as if this were an old fight, as if she was tired of explaining herself, again and again, to someone who didn’t understand. “And you agree? You can go to hell, too,” she said, and slammed the car door.
The tears were immediate; shockingly immediate. “Oh no. Oh, Mommy, I’m sorry. So, so stupid. So stupid! Why did I do that?” I checked traffic quickly, as if to chase her down, then realized she might take bus money even if she didn’t want to talk to me. I grabbed the diaper bag to retrieve my wallet when I heard a little peep from the back seat.
“Mommy, why are you crying?” Quinn asked.
I was shocked all over again as I realized that Quinn had been witness to it all. I looked back at her, and then back the way Mom had gone. Not myself but somehow on autopilot, I took a deep breath, pulled away from the curb, and spoke distractedly as tears rolled down my cheeks faster than I could swipe them away. “Honey, Mommy is crying because Gramma’s brain doesn’t work right and it makes me sad. She doesn’t know what she is doing. She loves us, but she can’t help herself from saying mean things sometimes.”
Quinn was quiet while I drove slowly up the street. Feeling a little more in control, or at least like I had no other option, I peered down the streets and up ahead. I had to mend the break. Or at least give her some bus money. She was always asking for ibuprofen for her knees and her legs after she walked up the hill to meet us on Mondays. I turned right and watched for her as we drove along 6th Avenue West, a neighborhood in Queen Anne with beautiful houses that must irk Mom every time she passes them. I spotted her hunched figure and I pulled to the curb a little ahead of her as I fumbled in my diaper bag. Before I was ready Mom wrenched the door open. She spoke with such force she practically spat at me. “She stole from me. My glasses! My house!” (She said more, but I’ll spare you the rest.) Then, as if to solidify the break, she yelled, “Now get out of here!” and threw her coin purse at me. And then she ran away again, in the direction of downtown and her home, the shelter on Pike and Third Avenue.
As soon as Mom slammed the door Quinn started crying and I was startled out of my head again. She was not just crying, she was bawling. Bawling like the time a dog bit her face and there was blood in her hair and on her nose and on her favorite dress. I ran around to her door feeling like a total failure on all accounts. I unbuckled her and held her tight while she sobbed; while we both sobbed. “It’s okay, honey. It’s gonna be okay.” When she quieted down again we got back in the car and took deep breaths. “You wanna go see Daddy for lunch?” I asked after a few moments. We both needed to see a friendly face.
“Yeah!” she said, sounding genuinely excited. I gave myself permission to just drive, not to apologize over and over again, or explain. But to just drive and breathe. We’d take care of the rest later. Quinn was quiet too while I drove down the hill to my husband’s work, and every time I checked on her in the mirror she was looking out the window. We drove this way for awhile, each in our own thoughts. All was silent except for the rubbery squeak of Spencer chewing on his Sophie giraffe.
“Mommy?” Quinn asked, when we were almost to South Lake Union.
“Yes, sweetie?” I asked, relieved that she sounded normal again.
“Lila’s Mom is nice. We should go have lunch with Lila from now on instead of grumpy old Gramma.”
“Okay, honey, we’ll see.” I said, in the most normal voice I could muster. But my heart was breaking.
A few hours later my phone rang, with only the numbers 2 – 0 – 6 showing up on the phone’s face.
“It’s Gramma!” I yelled, and picked up. “Hello?”
“Mommy, oh Mommy, you called. I’m so sorry.”
“You know, that woman really was connected to the Hazens. She was a thief.”
“I know, Mommy, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“Yeah, I needed to protect you. I didn’t want them to know you were with me. Did you know that when you slam your car door bullets shoot out?”
“No, I didn’t’ know that.” I said, surprised by the extent of her delusions, and the way she had figured out how to protect our relationship. I wasn’t “the other Penny,” as I’d often been before, but this worked, too.
“Well, they won’t hurt you. I took care of that. And you know, if your brain is all scrambled maybe you need to stop living with Dave. You can live in my old house at 3821 41st Avenue.”
“OK. Thanks Mom.” I said. I would say anything to repair the damage.
“So when should we meet next?” she asked, and when I heard her say it all the knots inside came apart, and I could move again. I slid down the couch and curled into a little ball on the seat, holding the phone like a cherished object. It was going to be okay. Not a year later, like last time, but hours later. It was really going to be okay.
After we had made plans to meet I heard Spencer waking up from his afternoon nap. “Mom, I have to go, but I’ll see you in a week, okay? I love you.”
“I love you, too,” she said, and hung up.
“And we’ll figure out how to repair the damage to Quinn,” I whispered into the silent line. I hoped, somehow, she was going to be okay, too.